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'Memphis' recalls fearsome era when even music was segregated

Pat Sibley, Joey Elrose & ensemble in "Memphis"
Pat Sibley, Joey Elrose & ensemble in "Memphis"
Jeremy Daniel

"Memphis" the Musical


During a time when the rights of those who wish to love whomever they want is very much in the news, there is no better illustration of that timely topic than in “Memphis,” which opened Monday. A national touring company production, the show continues through Wednesday, April 9 at Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis.

Joey Elrose & Jasmine Richardson in "Memphis"
Jeremy Daniel

Winner of four 2010 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, “Memphis” is a musical by David Byran (music and lyrics) and Jon DiPetro (lyrics and book). Loosely based on Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music in the segregated ‘50s, the show premiered on Broadway in 2009.

In “Memphis” the DJ is called Huey Calhoun. Totally colorblind, Calhoun has such a love and a passion for “race” music that, at great personal risk to himself and others, he plays it on the radio. The end result is that the music not only resonates with his young white listeners, it transforms popular culture forever. And if that were not enough, he falls in love with a beautiful black girl who he intends to make a star, thereby further increasing the danger that he places himself in.

Though DiPetro’s script for “Memphis” maintains interest, its anti-climactic ending falls short, Bryan’s music score, the outstanding vocals of the first-rate cast, and Sergio Trujillo’s original choreography made this production a solid evening of entertainment, with a message that inspired.

Joey Elrose turned in a fine performance as Calhoun, whose fearlessness in promoting black music is less about courage and more about his own innocent naiveté. Elrose shone in “The Music of My Soul” a song he sings when Huey tries to explain to all those assembled in Delray’s, a black rock and roll club, why he is drawn to their music.

Jasmine Richardson was spectacular as Felicia, the singer who Huey promises to turn into a star and whose heart he eventually wins, to the severe detriment of both. While singing “Someday” Richardson revealed a vocal talent consistent with her character who is destined for great things. Together, Elrose and Richardson showed believable chemistry in “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss.”

Also making a deep impression was RaMond Thomas as Felicia’s protective brother and club owner Delray, especially during “She’s My Sister,” his character’s powerful duet with Huey when he warns him about causing her harm.

Avionce Hoyles was indeed a revelation as Gator, who works for Delray. Due to a childhood trauma, he has never spoken a word until the day Felicia, who is beaten by white thugs, is brought to the club by Huey. Attempting to bring calm to the volatile situation, Gator sings “Say a Prayer.” Hearing such a formidable voice emanating from a performer of such diminutive size was a complete but happy surprise.

Jerrial T. Young was also well cast as Bobby, who initially works as a janitor in the radio station where Huey gets his break and where they befriend each other. Once Huey gets his own TV show, he showcases Bobby, whose hidden talent for singing is revealed when he belts and dances “Big Love.”

Also shining was the always energetic ensemble which was dazzling in production numbers that included “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night,” “Make Me Stronger,” “Tear Down the House” and “Steal Your Rock n’ Roll.”

Tickets for “Memphis” are available in person at the Broadway Across America Box Office downtown at 342 Massachusetts Avenue, Clowes Memorial Hall, The Old National Centre Ticket Office, online at, or by phone at 800-982-2787.

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