Monday, September 15, 2014

Racial Taboos, Rock and Blues at Toby’s Memphis


As was the case throughout the South during the mid-1950’s white folks in Memphis referred to African-Americans as coloreds and by the N-word.  Radio stations played either white music or black music—not both.  People dared not set foot in an establishment whose ownership and clientele were of another race. Interracial relationships were forbidden and dangerous.


Greg Twomey as Huey and Ashley Lauren Johnson as Felicia
While things have improved significantly but not entirely over the years, these conditions provide the backdrop for the hand-clapping, toe-tapping musical extravaganza, Memphis the Musical, now playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.
Under the direction of Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings with choreography by Christen Svingos, the extraordinary cast more than did justice to the four-time 2010 Tony Award-winning show that included Best Musical.  With all the superb performances and technical precision, Memphis joins a growing list of elite productions at Toby’s famous in-the-round theater.

David Bryan’s music and lyrics and Joe DiPietro, who co-wrote the lyrics and penned the book, brought the message of love, ambition and race home through a score brimming with rhythmic gospel, R&B and rock numbers along with melodic ballads. 
The story revolves around Huey Calhoun (played by Greg Twomey) a rather poor good ‘ole boy ninth grade dropout who loves R&B music.  One night he saunters into an underground black dive club where he was far from welcomed.  He meets Felicia Farrell (Ashley Lauren Johnson), the sister of the owner Delray Farrell (Sayne-Kharyi Lewis). Upon hearing the young black woman sing, Huey promises to find a way to get her noticed.

Huey, a braggart and a self-promoting conniver, manages to get himself a trial audition as a DJ on a white radio station playing “race music.”  In Memphis, no one had ever attempted this before.  Huey’s unique style and personality (he uses the nonsensical “Hockadoo” as his signature word on the air) plus his playing this type of music, which was the foundation for the upstart Rock ‘n Roll genre, endeared him to the listening audience much to the chagrin of the skeptical and resistant station manager Mr. Simmons (Robert John Biedermann 125).
"Adding all the ingredients together—the story, the music, the expertly directed well-cast and -performed production of Memphis is one that should not be missed." 

Nonetheless, Huey’s popularity leads him to a local television gig whereby he can showcase Felicia’s vocal talents.  As Huey’s interest in Felicia grows, he has to overcome the defiant opposition of his racist mother Gladys Calhoun (Lynne Sigler) who clings to old-time prejudice.  Her brother Delray is not too keen on this relationship either.  Though Felicia herself understands the dangers, she moves closer to Huey but wants to do so in secrecy.

While their careers rise their relationship is challenged by personal ambition and the lack of acceptance of their relationship by the outside world.  To find out how this plays out, you should see the show.
Although the entire ensemble can sing, dance and act like it’s nobody’s business, Twomey and Johnson soared high as the leads.  It was difficult for me to believe that Twomey hadn’t performed on stage for over three years prior to being cast in the role of Huey.  His performance is so refined, so adroit in every way, one would think he is a seasoned veteran with a mantle full of trophies. 

In that regard Twomey’s acting skills demonstrated more gold than rust.  Playing the role of a fellow who is paradoxically big-hearted and self-centered, his movements on the stage, facial expressions, body language, posture and Southern drawl demonstrate he was perfectly cast as Huey.
Besides his solid acting performance, Twomey proves he can sing and he can dance.  Though there were no solos for his part, Twomey excels with his smooth, pitch perfect voice in such numbers as “Music of My Soul,” “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss,” and “Tear Down the House.”

Photos by Kirstine Christansen
For her part, the lovely Ashley Lauren Johnson is also perfect for the role of Felicia.  Performing in her tenth show at Toby’s, her acting skills shine throughout, and her strong onstage chemistry with Twomey is palpable.  In addition to possessing superb vocal chops, Johnson delivers a beautiful solo rendition of “Colored Woman,”  and she hit the mark in “Love Will Stand”—an outstanding number she performs with the company.
Also notable in the cast is Lynne Sigler as Huey’s bigoted mother who eventually transforms her attitudes towards race.  Her number “Change Don’t Come Easy” is a virtual show-stopper.  Wait until you hear that final note!

Sayne-Khayri Lewis as Delray, the over-protective brother of Felicia, also turns in a fine job. His duet with Twomey, “She’s My Sister” is emotionally strong and well performed.
Tobias Young, a Helen Hayes nominated veteran of Toby’s sparkles in the role of Bobby, a janitor and a friend of Delray’s who helps the illiterate Huey to read a beer commercial.  That scene, by the way, is the funniest moment in the show.  Young’s performance of “Big Love” is joyful.

In the role of Gator, Jonathan Randle’s rendition of “Say a Prayer” is superb as it is moving.  Robert John Biedermann 125 as the cranky Mr. Simmons performs splendidly.
The talented ensemble proficiently supported the leads, performing in most of the numbers.  They sang and  danced expertly and added a high-octane presence.   Give credit to choreographer Christen Svingos for the well-designed dance numbers with some of them infused with breathtaking acrobatics.

Ross Scott Rawlings six-piece orchestra coordinated effectively with the on-stage performers, allowing their vocal talents to stand out. Set and  Light Designer David A. Hopkins and Sound by Drew Dedrick provided the technical support to keep the production glowing.
The period props are great part of the production.  They consisted of old phones, a television camera, actual vinyl records, 50’s-style kitchen furniture, microphones and radio equipment.  To go along with these, Larry B. Munsey outfitted the ensemble in representative 1950’s southern costumes including lovely robes for the church choir.

Adding all the ingredients together—the story, the music, the expertly directed well-cast and -performed production of Memphis is one that should not be missed. 
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: The show contains profanity and is not recommended for children.
_____________       #hocoarts
Memphis
runs through November 9  at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 410-730-8311 or online.

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