From ‘Memphis’ to Reedley, the fight against racism must continue
It’s a perfect time to reacquaint yourself with “Memphis,” the uplifting and thoughtful 2009 Broadway show focusing on how the crossover appeal of black music in the early 1950s helped weaken the race barrier in the South.
The depressing word in the previous sentence, unfortunately, is “weaken.” Nearly 70 years after the era of “Memphis,” we aren’t able to say that pervasive racism in the South (and the rest of the country) has been eliminated or even thoroughly defanged. The most optimistic spin we can take is that things are better than before. (No more segregated drinking fountains, at least.)
Even more depressing: Racial issues are even more sharp-edged and glaring in 2018 than they were in 2010, when “Memphis” won the Tony Award for best musical. (If you’re into hashtags, this one would be #goingbackwardsucks.)
All this explains why the new River City Theatre Company production of “Memphis” at the Reedley Opera House — a central San Joaquin Valley community theater premiere — is a worthwhile outing. With stirring lead performances and rousing vocals, the show is inspiring.
It’s also uneven at times in terms of acting, staging and production values when compared to other community theater in the region. And there are elements of the book itself that can feel formulaic, something that was apparent in the original Broadway production. But the ambition and dedication on display at Reedley shines through.
Here’s a review rundown on the production, which continues through July 29:
The plot: “Memphis” (with music and lyrics by David Bryan, and lyrics and book by Joe DiPietro) is loosely based on a real-life story about a scrappy and unconventional Memphis DJ whose embrace of black music helped set the stage for the development of rock ‘n’ roll. Huey Calhoun (played by Jonathan Wheeler) is white and poor, and his odd voice and off-kilter persona keep him from fitting into conventional society. But Huey has a funny charm and uncanny ability to ferret out popular music that people want to listen to. That’s how he meets Felicia (Camille Gaston), an aspiring black singer who would love to break into the music business but faces what at the time is an insurmountable color barrier. Despite laws against interracial romance, Huey falls hard for her, and their clandestine couplehood pays off in terms of career success for both. But racist attitudes could mean trouble for their relationship.
Related story: 5 Things to Know about Reedley’s ‘Memphis’
The leading players: Both Gaston and Wheeler offer distinct, memorable performances. From the moment Gaston appears on stage as a vision in a pale yellow dress (Theo Hill did the numerous period costumes), she soars vocally and dramatically. Her Felicia has a world weariness that keeps the show rooted in a melancholy reality, but there are high-wattage moments when Gaston makes you believe in the carefree exuberance of rock ‘n’ roll. Wheeler gets wacky with Huey’s speaking and singing style, as the show calls for, cheerfully slurring his words and shaping his phrases into one lazy, purring glissando after another. In the midst of all those vocal gymnastics, however, his tone is pure and his emotional connection with this admittedly odd character is strong.
The rest of the cast: Samuel Walls is a solid and believable Delray, Felicia’s protective brother. Jeremy Salas has some breakout moments as Gator, silent during the first part of the show but vocally abundant later on. Eloy Mireles, as sidekick Bobby, gives a rousing version of the song “Big Love.” Steve Jones, as Huey’s radio-station boss, is a blustery standout. In the middle of the hardworking ensemble — most of whom get solo cameo moments — Jessica Ham, Jorge Anthony Ramirez and Chris Giese all bring extra sparkle.
Direction and creative design (the strengths): Joseph Ham deftly adapts this complicated show for the tiny Reedley Opera House stage, creating a nightclub, gospel church, record store, and TV and radio studios, among other locations, with the most basic scenery. (He and Karl Jensen did the set design.) Ham draws strong and enthusiastic performances out of an ensemble that brings to the stage a variety of experience levels, and he helps mold them into a cohesive whole. The music performance tracks by Jeremy Hitch give a professional feel to the production (although at times they’re a little too loud).
Direction and creative design (the weaknesses): I did not connect with Lilly Dale Reed’s interpretation of the mother character, a crucial role in the show. Reed is a dynamic actor and a powerful presence on stage. But her portrayal (and costume) is too much a comic old-lady caricature, and, more importantly, her performance of “Change Don’t Come Easy” — the character’s “Come to Jesus racism moment” — doesn’t have the necessary gravitas or emotional impact. (Yes, it’s an upbeat tune, and the song has some lighthearted moments, but overall, it needs to have a gospel-fierce rawness that seemed lacking at the opening-weekend performance I attended.) Meanwhile, the only seriously clunky aspect of the production is the lighting design (also handled by Ham). Nighttime scenes felt murky and underlit, particularly the proposal scene.
The achievement: Still, this “Memphis” has lots of heart, and I salute Ham and his cast and crew for bringing such an important message to Reedley. I hope they can convince more out-of-towners, especially, to make the trip. Plus, getting to see it in such an intimate space makes the message resonate that much more. The opportunity to sit just a few dozen feet away from Gaston as she sings the rousing “Love Will Stand” made me want to stand and lament how much work needs to be done in terms of addressing racism in 2018. Change does not come easy, indeed.
“Memphis,” through July 29, Reedley Opera House, 1720 10th St., Reedley. Tickets are $25-$49.50 general (some with dinner/dessert options), $10 students.