StageArt’s production of Memphis The Musical at Prahran’s church – turned – theatre; Chapel off Chapel opened to a full house on Saturday night. Memphis, written by playwright Joe DiPetro, played on Broadway from 2009 to 2012 and finds a loose basis in Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play music by African American artists in 1950’s America.
As its name suggests, the musical is situated in Memphis, Tennessee amidst racial segregation at the advent of rock and roll. Huey Philips (James Elmer) is a clumsy department store employee whose knack for fast talking charm leads him out of potential unemployment and into DJing for a local radio station. Elmer doesn’t miss a beat in embodying Huey’s high energy personality. Though a white country boy, he has an affinity for rock and roll music (commonly referred to as “race music” in the show) so much so that he feels confident enough to enter a black owned underground nightclub. It is here he meets headliner Felicia (Elandrah Eramiah-Feo) who is by and large the standout performer, not only in the Memphis universe but as the vocal powerhouse on Chapel’s stage.
Felicia’s brother Delray (Iopu Auva’a) is the owner of the club and determined to launch his sister’s singing career. Auva’a absolutely draws you in with his commanding stage presence. Delray remains sceptical of Huey, who he suspects is trying to hijack Felicia’s career and take undue credit for her talents, perhaps in the trend of blue eyed soul (She’s My Sister). Memphis falls into predictability at times – Huey meets Felicia’s eye, not only on a professional scale but a personal one. However, we see the internal conflict faced by Felicia in particular when it comes to going public with their interracial relationship in an incredibly dangerous climate. The exchanges between the two are particularly sweet, Elmer brilliantly embodying Huey’s goofy good nature to match Eramiah-Feo’s grace and quick wit as Felicia.
As far as the music goes, Memphis is jam packed – there is the feel good (The Music of My Soul), gospel anthems (Make Me Stronger) and the upbeat (Everybody Wants To Be Black On A Saturday Night). A casual musical theatre fan may find a comparison to Hairspray easy to make, especially as the atmosphere of the club is transferred to a television show, but one could argue the focus that Memphis places upon Felicia avoids this. Felicia has her catchy radio hit reminiscent of ‘The Supremes’ (Someday) but she also gets her liberating, inspired anthem (Colored Woman). Elandrah Eramiah-Feo beautifully executes every song and has a captivating stage presence as Felicia. Similarly, the mute bartender Gator (Isaac Lindley) shines when he breaks his silence with an emotive call for peace (Say a Prayer). It’s gems like these that make Memphis memorable.
StageArt and director Dean Drieberg do well with the set design, throwing it back to the days of newspaper advertisements for artists like Etta James and Memphis Slim. Memphis also boasts an array of costume changes, engaging choreography (by Kirra Sibel) and a solid ensemble cast with a skill for quick character changes and comedic flare – Callum Warrender in particular proves to be entertaining in this regard. Bobby (Nik Murillo) is the lovable underdog as the radio station janitor with hidden vocal talent, Murillo also finding ease in exploring his comedic chops.
While Memphis showcases a relatively young cast, the talents of the more experienced ensemble cast do not go unnoticed. Greg Pascoe as radio station manager Mr Simmons is often to thank for the stark but necessary tonal shifts that happen throughout the show, as we move from fun radio hits (Scratch My Itch) to the expression of dark, racist vitriol which would have sadly been relevant to the context of the American south in the 1950’s. Of note is Mandi Lodge as Huey’s mother, Gladys. Lodge is particularly adept at tackling the uncertainty Gladys faces, shifting from bigoted apprehension at her son’s DJ gig and relationship with Felicia, to ultimately accepting as she delivers in her vocal performance (Change Don’t Come Easy) which is definitely one to remember.
Memphis is in many ways a story of how music, and love, break barriers and play an important role in breaking down racism and intolerance. Such a message is punched out with humour and a solid performance all round. The cast of Memphis had an energetic opening night which is sure to continue throughout this show’s run.
Memphis will be on at Chapel Off Chapel until October 28 and you can find tickets and further info here.
Photo credit: Jayde Justin