I got the chance to slip into a recent rehearsal of the musical “Memphis” at Reedley’s River City Theatre Company. The show’s two stars, Camille Gaston and Jonathan Wheeler, sat down beforehand for an insightful interview that was part of the July episode of the TV version of “The Munro Review.”
In the meantime, here are Five Things to Know about the production:
It’s a central San Joaquin Valley premiere.
That fact helped Reedley director Joseph Ham nab top-notch local talent for the show, which requires a diverse cast with powerful singers and actors. Gaston, one of the best and prolific performers on the local scene, jumped at the chance to play Felicia, the aspiring singer in early 1950s Memphis who dares to break through the color barrier with her new brand of rock ‘n’ roll.
“It’s been a dream role of mine,” Gaston says. When she saw Reedley was doing it, her response was: ‘Hell, yeah, I want to do it!” I think those were my exact words.”
When Wheeler heard that Gaston was auditioning, he knew immediately: “If Camille’s in, I’m in,” he says.
It’s a love story with bigger ramifications.
Set in early 1950s Memphis, the story is about a white DJ named Huey (played by Wheeler) who falls for Felicia (Gaston), an aspiring black singer. Romance between them is against the law. But that doesn’t stop Huey from falling in love not only with her music but Felicia herself. “He spends the rest of the time doing anything he can to get her attention,” Wheeler says. “He becomes so lovestruck that he doesn’t even care about the laws … He believes that music is the one connection that can bring people together.”
The show is just as relevant today as when the musical is set. Maybe even more so.
“I like to call it the grittier version of ‘Hairspray,’ “ Gaston says. “It deals with racial issues in the south. It’s an important story to tell. We’re still dealing with that in our country … We don’t have separate (drinking) fountains anymore, but racism is a lot more subtle now, but that’s scarier to me than overt racism. We have to talk about it.”
While the themes might be serious, the musical is accessible and heartfelt. And the score itself is jaunty and broadly appealing.
“It’s a really good story,” Gaston says. “It will give you the ‘feels.’ ”
Here’s rehearsal footage of “Steal Your Rock ‘N’ Roll”:
For its director, this is a dream project.
“Memphis” is an important show, not only for River City Theatre as a company, but for the Central Valley as a whole,” says Ham, who jumped at the chance to helm the show when the title became available. “Not only does it provide some truly wonderful opportunities for actors and singers of color, but it’s also a truly moving story that tackles the topics of racism and discrimination in an honest, genuine way. The central moral of “Memphis” is encapsulated in the final song of the show: Be true to yourself, listen to what your heart tells you, and don’t ever be ashamed of who you are. We’re all one people. Love and music are the universal things that bring us together.”
“Memphis,” opens 8 p.m. Friday, July 6, Reedley Opera House, 1720 10th St., Reedley. Runs through July 29. Tickets are $25-$49.50 general (some with dinner/dessert options), $10 students.
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