Listen to the beat and you’ll hear what’s in their soul! Live from the center of your radio dial— just at the tippy-top end of Station North coming to you directly from The Motor House— ArtsCentric is bringing you the sensational smash hit musical Memphis. Directed by Kevin S. McAllister with Musical Direction by Cedric D. Lyles and Choreography by Torens Johnson, this stellar production is the music of your soul like you’ve never heard heart and soul and rock and roll and rhythm and blues before.
Adapting the intimate space of The Motor House’s main stage to suit the needs of a 1950’s department store, radio station, Beale Street underground night club, and much more, area-renowned Set Designer Ryan Haase transforms the black box stage into all of these things with ease of motion in mind. Flipping the brick wall of Delray’s nightclub around to reveal the record-front radio station, which doubles up as the department store, Haase’s multi-faceted, dual-functioning set piece serves scenic transitions with fluidity and sparks that hint of old theatre magic. This enables Musical Director Cedric D. Lyles to become an active part of the show in addition to conducting the four-piece band (Adrian Mitchell on trumpet, Michael Kellam on bass, Evander McLean on drums/percussion, and himself playing the piano and keys from the middle of the set.)
Haase may create the framework for these locations in Memphis circa the early 1950’s but it’s Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin that brings you right into their midst. Initially when the swinging, jumping sounds of ‘race music’ come blaring up out of Delray’s little club, the dancers are lit in heavy red lighting, a tongue-in-cheek symbolic representation of all things tawdry and untoward, which was how such music was viewed by the ignorant white people of the time. Joslin knows her way around a lighting grid, using mood lighting to enhance riveting and emotionally charged numbers, like the orange flush that washes over Delray and Huey during “She’s My Sister.” Joslin continually lights the heavier dance routines with light in absentia and shadow-play, making the choreography pop even more so against the racy beat of the song.
There is no question about feeling the 50’s rhythm when it comes to movement in the show; Choreographer Torens Johnson puts the blaze of Beale Street into the fast and furious feet of the dancing ensemble. Johnson’s choreography puts forth fantastical energy, enthusiasm, and a serious understanding of the style of movement used for that type of music from the 50’s. There is non-stop bee-bop, doo-wop, and all kinds of shimmying, shaking, and shuffling, sliding all over the painted parquet beneath the ensemble’s fantastical feet. Everything from “Underground” to “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” is loaded with movement, much of which features partnered lifts, spins, and slides. Johnson understands the need to keep the ensemble in perpetual motion when it comes to this production, effectively keeping the overall momentum running at full speed from the first moment you enter Delray’s until the very last moment of the show.
Polishing to perfection the feeling of the 50’s, Costume Designer Kitt Crescenzo brings out the style and feel of Memphis with the sartorial selection she uses throughout the show. With virtually flawless costuming, which compliments each of the performers in an almost perfect fashion— save for one ill-fitted yellow dress on Felicia—the aesthetic approach to the costumes is astonishing. Each of the floral numbers that Crescenzo uses on Felicia are as vivacious as the character is spirited and styled to the times. Crescenzo doesn’t slack off in the ensemble when it comes to outfits either, giving each character a unique look of their own while keeping them in threads of the time.
With a powerful sound of dozens behind them, the ensemble (Kali Baklor, Geocel Batista, Ricardo Blagrove, Allison Bradbury, Nick Carter, Jessa Marie Coleman, Terrance Flemming, Mary Anne Furey, Brice Guerriere, Raquel Gregory-Jennings, Myrhanda R. McDaniels, James Ruth, Kylie Smith, Tyrell Stanley) bring the heart and soul of this musical forward during the ensemble numbers. Whether it’s when they’re singing and dancing through “Radio” or the stunning feeling the pouring the show’s finale, “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll”, this is a moving company that will bring tears of joy to your eyes. Standout performances include Allison Bradbury as the young soloist featured with the gospel choir during “Make Me Stronger”, wherein Bradbury gets to showcase her brilliant voice at the top of its lungs, and Ricardo Blagrove as Wailin’ Joe, who plays up the character’s namesake and just shows off during “Scratch My Itch.” Blagrove doubles up in the trio of fleet-footed dancers, joined by Terrance Flemming and Tyrell Stanley who, who burn hot-footed soul all through “Everybody Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night”, looking snazzy as their dance moves in those blue suits. And when it comes to providing sensational backup vocals for Felicia, Geocel Batista, Jessa Marie Coleman, and Raquel Gregory-Jennings are sublime performing behind her in “Someday.”
While they don’t play nice characters per say, both Chip Willett and Stephen M. Deininger take the characters of Buck Wiley and Simmons, respectively, and ground them in the reality of 1952. Willett, who doubles up later as one of the network executives, is barky and loud when striking out against Huey’s nonsense, though sweet as plum pudding when it comes to his on-air Buck personality. Deininger takes the notion of the curmudgeon and swings it into action with the Simmons character, trying to balance the changing of the times with his own backwoods raisin’. The pair temper the levels of inherent racism that come assigned to the characters to make them ever-so-slightly more palatable for the show.
Silence is golden, but when Gator (Kymon George Carriker) lets loose to sing during “Say A Prayer”, to quote directly from the show— “you’ve never heard no music like that before.” With a stunningly powerful sound that moves the soul sincerely, Carriker carries the opening and several segments of this number with a deep pride and a heavy heart. In addition to his astonishing vocal abilities, he plays around quite humorously with his charades, miming, and overall facial expressions both before and after his silence is broken. Making a strong foil to Bobby (Derrick Truby), who makes a whole lotta noise by comparison, Carriker is perfectly suited for the role. Truby, who delivers the larger-than-life personality of Gator with a gush of gusto, especially when answering Mr. Simmons with the incorrect answers, puts amazing life into both his singing and his dancing. Taking full charge of “Big Love” with a whole lot of panache behind his power-punching voice, Truby further wows the audience with his insane dance moves, which include double cartwheels!
Mama don’t always know best, but when mama knows that change is gonna come round, it might be time to start listening to mama, and that’s exactly the case when it comes to Gladys (Jackie Rebok) Calhoun. With a consistent Tennessee accent, Rebok plays the character in earnest, easily overcoming her young age and fully convincing us that she’s Huey’s dated mother. Though her tolerance is non-existent, when she finally sees the light and comes around, the powerful transformation that Rebok showcases in the character is striking. “Make Me Stronger” is an exemplary show of her vocal strength, but it’s “Change Don’t Come Easy”— which she shares with the trio of Gator, Bobby, and Delray— that really puts her vocal prowess on display. Belting, wailing, and even wildcat dancing her way through the number, Rebok is mighty impressive in the role simply because of that number.
With a voice that could cut glass, melt better, and shake the soul all in one go, David Hammett’s take on Delray is the epitome of fraternal and overbearing, especially when it comes to protecting Felicia. Heart and soul are flowing through him, especially during the lighter and more upbeat numbers. (Watch how he leads the Calvary Baptist Choir through “Stronger” and what spirit he imbues in them to do so!) But when it comes to standing his ground with Felicia, the number “She’s My Sister” is fierce and frightening. His attitude is everything in this production, second only to his vocal capabilities, and when he sets his mind and voice to a song, you’re going to hear it, see it, and feel it in a way that will not soon easily be forgotten.
Awa Sal Secka is the music of your soul when singing as Felicia in Memphis. Full of indescribable spirit, hope, enthusiasm, and determination, Secka is a sensation. With a voice that would shake down the whole of Beale Street, both powerful and evocative, Secka is the prime choice for this role. Convivial in the way she treats the character, approaching from a place of honesty and sincerity, there isn’t a moment that’s not utterly ensnaring whenever she’s on stage, even if she’s not singing. “Someday” warms your heart, while “Colored Woman” all but breaks it before pulling it back together with determination and dreams. The way Secka connects to both the character and the music is astonishing and nearly beyond words.
And when Felicia first lays eyes on Huey (Ryan Burke), it’s easy to see that she is swept up in this mysteriously outrageous character. When Secka and Burke’s voices first unite during “The Music of My Soul” the song is suddenly alive, like two currents of electricity jolting into place and becoming fireworks for the very first time. The scene they share in Huey’s momma’s kitchen is too precious, awkward and flirty with sincerity gushing in a messy but sweet fashion from both parties. The struggles and the strengths and the triumphs and defeats that the pair share are what make this a truly remarkable story; both Burke and Secka understand one another on stage and share that chemistry divinely.
Hockadoo! Is that dirty? We’ll never know because crazy little Huey done made it up! Well crazy little Ryan Burke embodies Huey Calhoun wholeheartedly, fully and completely, mastering the accent, the indefatigable energy, the heart, the soul, and every other part of the man that carries this show. It’s simpler to say just go see the man be a superstar, but it cannot go without saying that during “Memphis Lives in Me” there is nothing but pure, honest soul pouring out of him straight into the audience. Burke tears up the house with tears in that number, freeing his soul, freeing the audience’s souls, freeing everyone and everything in this all-culminating one powerful moment that defines the show, hands down. A true sensation, with his insanely tip-top tenor range that can belt, blast, and carry tunes like there’s no tomorrow; Hockadoo is the word best suited to describe him, since it seems to be something hollered when extremely thrilled, excited, and pleased.
You’ll find the music of your soul, there’s no question there. You’ll feel the truth of rhythm and blues, and nobody can steal your rock ‘n’ roll the way the actors at ArtsCentric can; this is one show that you’ll be kicking yourself in the teeth from now ‘til Christmas if you miss. With just three weekends in performance, get your tickets quickly! Hockadoo!
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Memphis plays through September 3, 2017 at ArtsCentric on the main stage of The Motor House— 120 W. North Avenue in the Station North Arts District of Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online.