Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Review of Porchlight Music Theatre's Memphis

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Memphis. The book and lyrics were by Joe DiPietro and the music and lyrics were by David Bryan. It was directed by Daryl Brooks. The choreography was by Christopher Carter, and the music director was Jermaine Hill. It was about a white man named Huey Calhoun (Liam Quealy) who heard a woman named Felicia Farrell (Aeriel Williams) singing at a club and decided he needed to find a way to produce her music and get her heard. But because of racism at the time it was really hard to get a black woman on the air of white radio stations, no matter how much talent she had. Huey and Felicia fall in love and encounter racism because of their relationship. The show follows both of their careers as Huey becomes a rising radio host and Felicia puts out her first record. It is about love, music, and injustice. I think this is a fun musical and has amazing performances, but I do feel like there are some things that trouble me in the script.

I feel like this musical didn't have to be a white man's story. I think Quealy did a really great job in the role; my problem was just with the script. I was really interested in Felicia's story and I wanted to learn even more about her. I wanted to know more about life at the club and her relationship with her brother and the people in her church choir. I wanted to see her not just as a talent or with Huey, but navigating the world on her own. I bet she had to do that for a long time before Huey showed up. I was more interested in finding out how a black female singer would try and get on the radio than how a white guy helped a black woman get her songs on the radio. It is an interesting story to see the hate that they get because of their relationship, but I just didn't want it to be more his story. There is a moment where Huey decides that he wants to overthrow many people's racist ideas by kissing Felicia on his TV show. This would have been a great move if he had asked for consent and talked to her about it first because it could end up hurting her career and her life. Combatting racism is important, but doing it in this way--where it involves an act that needs to be consented to and has not been talked through with people who will probably be affected by it the most--is problematic.

Two songs where you get to focus mainly on Felicia's story are "She's My Sister," which is sung by her brother Delray (Lorenzo Rush, Jr.), and "Colored Woman," which she sings about her experiences with prejudice and what her mother warned her about what kinds of choices she has in the world. Both of the songs were so well-acted and amazingly sung. "She's My Sister" is a fight Delray has with Huey about his devotion to his sister and how he realized her talent after their parents died so he decided to open his club. Delray is telling Huey the reasons why Huey should not be able to take this music as his own. He is trying to tell him that he is appropriating, and Huey says, "That's not for you to say," except that it very much is because it is music that was made to express people's feelings that weren't being listened to. And for a white man, even a poor one, to take that and say this is mine because I love it isn't right. It makes sense that he would love and identify with the music. But he shouldn't take it, like Delray says he is. The song "Colored Woman" was so beautifully done and emotionally resonant. I think that actor did an amazing job throughout the show but this song showed all her talent beautifully. It is one of the moments in the show where you get to see her perspective fully. You get to hear about her family life not through her brother and her experiences with being black in the south in the sixties. It shows you that she is capable of telling her own story and despite the prejudice she is talking about she wants to take charge of her own life.

I think this show had an amazing supporting cast and ensemble. They were phenomenal dancers and singers. Bobby (James Earl Jones II) had a song, "Big Love," where he came out of his shell for the first time and sang on live television. It was a really fun and catchy song and was really awesome to see the switch he had between being the janitor at the radio station and this rock star that just came out and was having fun and knew he was killing it. There was a really funny moment I think around the song "Crazy Little Huey" where the dancers on the tv show were told to do the alligator dance. Gator (Gilbert Domally) has this alligator head that he is carrying and chomping on people. LAnd he tried to bite one of the dancers (Jared David Michael Grant) and the dancer made this hilarious overdramatic terrified face and it was absolutely hilarious. They were clearly having so much fun and joking around. Ensemble in musicals are often just in the background, but in this show each of the members had so much personality and were super memorable.

People who would like this show are people who like resonant blues, protective brothers, and overdramatic alligator dances. I think that people should go see this show. It has a great cast and amazing music. I liked it.

Photos: Michael Courier

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