The current national tour of Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s “Memphis,” recipient of the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical, vigorously thrills with potency and heart in its firm local premiere at the Schuster Center courtesy of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premier Health Broadway Series.
Set in the 1950s and based on a concept by George W. George, “Memphis” centers on the forbidden interracial romance between kooky DJ Huey Calhoun (an immensely amiable Joey Elrose) and R&B nightclub singer Felicia Farrell (a radiant Jasmin Richardson). Huey, an uneducated outcast who feels a deep kinship to black music culture, longs to turn Felicia into a star thanks to the popularity of his radio show, but his dream isn’t universally embraced. In fact, Huey and Felicia face significant challenges as they seek to make their relationship work in a segregated climate. Huey’s mother and Felicia’s brother particularly express their contempt, fueling the production’s forthright authenticity to appropriately shocking degrees. Even so, Huey and Felicia’s charming, heartbreaking journey smoothly drives the action, accented by a very tuneful score and complex characterizations.
The endearing, goofy Elrose injects great persistence, determination, arrogance and stubbornness into the socially awkward Huey, loosely inspired by trailblazer Dewey Phillips who was the first DJ to play Elvis Presley’s debut record. Elrose specifically gives Huey’s passionate anthem “Memphis Lives in Me” an aptly earnest treatment. Vocal powerhouse Richardson, fierce and vivacious with an appealing Diana Ross sensibility to boot, provides dynamite renditions of “Make Me Stronger,” “Colored Woman,” “Someday” and “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls.”
Well-defined, engaging supporting portrayals are offered by RaMond Thomas as Felicia’s hardnosed, overprotective brother Delray, D. Scott Withers as Huey’s boss Mr. Simmons, Kyshawn K. Lane as the timid Gator, Jerrial T. Young as the bubbly Bobby, and Pat Sibley as Huey’s bigoted Mama. Thomas’ fiery “She’s My Sister” and Sibley’s humorous “Change Don’t Come Easy” fittingly add spice and color to their solid work.
Christopher Ashley’s original direction and Sergio Trujillo’s original choreography is smoothly, respectively recreated by Adam Arian and Jermaine R. Rembert. Rembert’s contributions distinctively retain Trujillo’s astuteness and vivacity, especially the exuberant “Radio” skillfully commenting on race through dance in an inspired manner not seen since Jerry Mitchell’s exhilarating choreography for “Hairspray.”
David Gallo’s terrifically stark sets, Paul Tazewell’s attractive period costumes, Howell Binkley’s expert lighting, and conductor Alan J. Plado’s first-rate orchestra are additional attributes of this energetic showcase.
“Memphis” continues through April 13 at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton. Performances are today at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Act One: 75 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $40-$96. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com.