You can’t help but feel the heat of summertime Memphis in 1958 as the forbidden love story of white radio DJ Huey Calhoun (Brent DiRoma) and black club singer Felicia Farrell (Jasmin Richardson) unfolds before you on the stage of the Arkansas Repertory Theater. It’s one of the hottest, loudest musicals I’ve ever seen at The Rep, and perhaps the most uplifting since “Les Mis” came to Main Street in 2008.
This rendering of Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan’s “Memphis” unites a talented cast from around the nation. DiRoma, from Tampa, Fla., plays a sensitive if cavalier Huey, a hepcat DJ who yearns to win the affection of Felicia, a passionate artist with a dream to sing above her protective brother Delray’s (Tony Perry) underground Beale Street club.
Richardson, from Houston, recently played Felicia on a national tour of the musical. Her rendition of “Colored Woman” — “For this is one colored woman who will color her life her way” — left me covered in goose bumps. Her mezzo-soprano radiates with a timbre particularly rich for an actress so young, and Huey falls in love with it, promising to play her music on the mainstream (read: white) radio station WHDZ. His boss, Mr. Simmons (Bill Newhall), though initially concerned that the so-called “race music” won’t sell on his airwaves, warms to the sound when Huey’s show tops the Memphis charts.
Perry, who was born in New York, plays a protective brother to Felicia in Delray, a character he told the Times he created with inspiration from stories his parents told him when he was a boy.
But for all its musical achievement, “Memphis” is not a particularly potent civil rights musical. Witnessed through an historical lens, it’s a little too much fun. Expressions of the unbridled hatred and injustice that characterized relations between many blacks and whites in the midcentury South, while present, are few and far between, and, when they arise, merit nothing more than a PG rating.
Certain bits of the writing, as when the long-mute bartender Gator, having not spoken a word since his father’s lynching, suddenly finds his voice at the climax of Act 1, can read a little starry-eyed to those expecting a realistic dose of civil rights history. This cast can belt “Listen to the beat and hear what’s in your soul,” but the message reads as a bit trite.
“Memphis” audiences can expect to revel in the glow of one fearless woman’s rise from the underground bar to the main stage in New York City. Richardson’s capacity to convey courage and strength on the stage is unparalleled. From her first downbeat in the opening “Underground,” we know her Felicia Farrell must triumph in the end. And DiRoma plays a perfectly balanced Huey — he wears increasingly kicky outfits and stays just far enough off the beat to never fall off it. Like Daddy-O Dewey Phillips, the disc jockey who inspired his character, DiRoma brings a loveable ungainliness to the microphone, especially evident when Huey, who is illiterate, goes completely off the script when reading a beer commercial, capping it with his famous buzzword, “Hockadoo!”
I got a huge kick out of “Memphis.” The show is full of fantastic music belted by a world-class cast, great sets and all-star dancing. It’s a story about courage and love, and the courage to love, and the soundtrack has a song for everyone. But leaving the theater, I wondered if perhaps I had enjoyed myself too much, if the show was a little too hot and too loud for a musical set during the early stages of the civil rights movement. That said, maybe it’s fairest to say that “Memphis” is not a show about race — at least not directly — so much as it’s a show about music. Insofar as that is its ambition, this show succeeds, full of “the music of [your] soul,” performed by what is surely one of the most talented casts The Rep has ever staged. Go see it for a rocking night out, just not for a history lesson.
“Memphis” will continue through Sept. 28 at the Arkansas Repertory Theater. Performances are at 7 p.m. Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Single-ticket prices range from $30 to $65. At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, Arkansas Times and Golden Eagle host a pre-party with samples of O’Fallon Brewery beer in Foster’s in The Rep.