Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical now on at Porchlight Music Theater (directed by Daryl Brooks), is that in the middle of the first act, I was so caught up in the show that I forgot I was supposed to review it later. Gone was a critical eye to the details, to any of the minutiae of the production. For a brief moment, I was swept away in the show and I’d completely forgotten I was in a near-north theater on a Friday night.
Instead, and along with the rest of the audience, I was transported back to 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, for the story of Huey Calhoun (Liam Quealy)—illiterate, unemployable and white with an ear for “race music”—and Felicia Farrell (Aeriel Williams)—demure, innocent and black with the voice of an angel. Their paths cross when Huey walks into Felicia’s brother’s club; needless to day, Delray (James Earl Jones II) and the rest of the clientele are none too pleased by the interloper. But when Huey promises to make Felicia a star (and promptly falls in love with her), this wanderer has a new direction in life, and nothing will stop him from pursuing it.
With a bit of fast talking, Huey gets himself a job on the local radio station playing the kind of rhythm and blues music to which the “good Christian” folks of Memphis aren’t accustomed. (Insert pearl clutching here.) But Huey persists and the results are undeniable: soon he’s the top radio show in the city (at the middle of the dial, as an impressive, proscenium-like radio dial above us indicates), and all the kids, black and white alike, are bebopping to the records he spins. Even Felicia gets her start in show business, singing live on his show to a bigger audience than she’s ever reached before.
Soon, success is Huey’s—and it shows. He and his mama (Nancy Wagner) move into a house on the right side of the tracks, their clothes take on a finer trim, and he even gets a kiss out of Felicia. By the end of that first act, the radio-ready tunes and the can-do attitude are so infectious, you’ll spend intermission tapping your foot.
It’s in the second act where the stakes ratchet up. In the era of Black Lives Matter, racial tensions on stage need to pack a certain punch to feel anywhere near as gut-wrenching as what we see on the news every day. And while the discrimination at the heart of Memphis is set in reality (Huey and Felicia get beat up by a few white hooligans; Huey gets offered a national TV show, but only if he replaces his black dancers with white ones), it’s also tragically quaint in its own way.
Where the story doesn’t quite keep up with the times, Porchlight’s iteration shines in its production value and performances. I haven’t seen enough of Porchlight’s work to get a feel for their go-to ensemble members (though I plan to), but the cast assembled for Memphis is stellar. Quealy plays Huey with enough charm at the beginning that we’re all in with him, and enough ego as the show progresses that we see the fall coming before he does. Meanwhile, Williams’ Felicia offers a calming center to Huey’s frenetic energy and a quiet strength when the going gets tough. Oh, and they can all sing. Well.
From first glance, it’s clear the we’re in for a visual treat. The stage blends multiple elements—two radio booths on either side, the orchestra visible upstage through an archway in a brick wall, stairs running the length at the front—into a seamless whole that works as numerous set pieces. The costumes (someone give Bill Morey an award) are magnificent, communicating emotion and mood as much as they do time and place. And the choreography is both sharply structured and energetically delivered.
Powerhouse musical productions come through Chicago on the regular, what with Hamilton still selling out and the Lyric staging an entire series of Broadway classics. With yet another hit on their hands (see: Merrily We Roll Along), it’s worth expanding your musical theater mainstays to include Porchlight. See Memphis before it’s gone, and check out their entire 2018/2019 season while you’re at it.
Memphis at Porchlight Music Theater (Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn) has been extended through June 16; tickets are $33-$60 and available here.