Written by Holly Quinn
The Wilmington Drama League has hit an impressive stride in the last year or so, apexing with their fantastic April production of “The Civil War: The Musical.”
The theater keeps that quality and energy going with “Memphis The Musical,” directed and choreographed by Dominic Santos.
“Memphis” first premiered in 2002 and ran on Broadway from 2009 to 2012. Set in the early 1950s, it tells the story of two worlds – one black, one white – connected by a love of what would become known as rock ‘n’ roll.
The bridge between these worlds is Huey Calhoun (Anthony Vitalo), a poor white stock boy-turned-radio DJ who hangs out in a small music club on Beale Street, unfazed that he’s the only person there who isn’t black. The club is a showcase for the talent of Felicia Farrell (Tiffany Dawn Christopher), the beautiful singer who quickly captures Calhoun’s (and the audience’s) heart.
In his director’s notes, Santos (who WDL fans may know from his many on-stage performances, including Frederick Douglass in “Civil War”) notes that the casting process took two, far longer than usual. It paid off. Vitale is charismatic and convincing as the clever yet ragtag Huey, and Christopher shines as the rising star Felicia. Together, they have great chemistry.
The supporting cast, including WDL regular Daniel Urdaneta as Bobby, Darryl Thompson as Felicia’s brother and club owner Delray, Tommy Fisher Klein as Gator, and Kathy Buterbaugh as Huey’s mother Gladys, all give standout performances. The ensemble really doesn’t have a weak link as they dance and sing through the story.
The story is a good one, about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in tiny black clubs, how it got to the ears of white Americans and the intolerance that worked to filter the black out of this style of black music. At times, the story is brutal, and its issues of racism, violence and marriage inequality still reverberate today.
But “Memphis” is not a heavy-handed sermon. It’s a story as full of joy and humor as tribulation, and there’s no better way to tell it than through music.
“Memphis” features a live orchestra directed by Caty Butler, and the musicians are at times visible at the back of the stage. In addition to the excellent music, vocals, choreography and ‘50s costuming by Laurene Eckbold and Doris Hines, “Memphis” also has an impressive stage design by Pete Worth, with the kind of moving parts and layers you’d see on Broadway.
All of the elements come together for a very well done, highly recommended production.