Get ready to rock ‘n’ roll! Memphis is in Columbia at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, this musical is electrifying and a must see!
Winner of the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical, Memphis takes place in 1950’s Memphis, Tennessee, where rock ‘n’ roll and interracial relationships are both taboo.
In John Waters’ 2002 musical version of Hairspray, which takes place in Baltimore, both of these topics have been explored before, leaving the plot of Memphis to not be an original concept.
…this musical is electrifying and a must see!…Directors Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey make this musical successful because of their ability to show the darkness of racism and the glory of how music can bring people together.
With that said, the topic of race is still relevant in today’s society which is still affected by inequalities and prejudice, such as race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.
One thing that is equal is the quality of talent that is on the Toby’s stage. From ensemble to the leading roles, everyone does a fine job.
The cast is led by the richly talented Ashley Lauren Johnson as Felicia Farrell, a young black singer who is waiting for her big break into show business. She gets her big break from a white DJ named Huey Calhoun played by an entertaining Greg Twomey who falls head over heels for her and her voice.
And what a voice Johnson has! She brings out the most of the songs “Colored Woman” and “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls” utilizing her pleasant tone. Even more impressive, she shows great maturity for her age by showing restraint, giving a vocal and acting performance that is understated; and as a result quite believable.
Greg Twomey doesn’t show much restraint in his performance and that is quite appropriate for his bold and brassy character. After all, his character, after only four days of being on the air says, “Hockadoo! This is Huey Calhoun, your new host of ‘Boppin’ with the Blues,’ the number one program in Memphis!”
Soon their professional relationship turns into a forbidden romance. Not everyone is accepting of these two young lovers. This includes Gladys Calhoun, Huey’s mother, played by an emotionally gripping Lynne Sigler. In the second act, Sigler, along with Delray Farrell (Sayne-Khayri Lewis), Gator (Jonathan Randle), and Bobby (Tobias Young) brings down the house with the soulful song, “Change Don’t Come Easy.”
Delray, Felicia’s older brother, is also opposed to change, at first. During the song “She’s My Sister,” Delray exclaims to Huey, “The danger is deep that you wanna put her in. I don’t care about you, but she’s my sister.”
Last seen on the Toby’s stage as Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, Robert John Biedermann 125 is able to mix his blend of comedy with drama in his role as Mr. Simmons, the radio station owner.
The ensemble features some smaller but memorable moments on the stage. I won’t spoil any of the surpirses, but Toby’s regular Jeffrey Shankle makes the most out of his appearances.
The music from Memphis is written by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan. Mr. Bryan was attracted to writing the musical because of “The story. It’s an epic American tale about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. I just love that we not only portray one of the first white DJ’s to integrate the radio, but we also dramatize an interracial love story (when it was against the law in many states to have an interracial marriage.) Ultimately, it’s a story about how music helped bring about social change, and how this music helped bring people together.”
The heart of this musical is the story, written by Joe DiPietro. His script won the 2010 Tony-Award for Best Book of a Musical. What sparked his interest in writing the book, he says, was that “the initial idea was suggested by a producer with the incredibly theatrical name of George W. George, who had read about a revolutionary DJ out of Memphis in the early ’50’s. The DJ’s name was Dewey Phillips, and he was pretty much radio’s first shock jock; wild, outrageous, untamable. He also had a love for rhythm and blues and was the first to play it in the center of the radio dial in Memphis (a dangerous thing in those days, since radio was as horrifically segregated as society.) So I took the germ of Dewey’s life, added elements of other DJ’s of the time, and created a fictional story that tells the tale of a rock ‘n’ roll rebel who breaks down barriers during a time that changed this country forever.”
The live music led by Music Director Ross Scott Rawlings brings out the flavor of the music while Choreographer Christen Svingos gives the audience plenty of dance moves that will make you take notice.
Memphis works very well in Toby’s intimate, theatre-in-the-round setting. The subtle nuances of the performances and staging really proves to be effective. Directors Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey make this musical successful because of their ability to show the darkness of racism and the glory of how music can bring people together.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Advisory: Profanity, use of the “n” word, and adult themes.
Memphis plays through November 9, 2014 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required at (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311, or 800-88TOBYS , or purchase them online.