Dallas — The lights go down, the band floats out a rock rhythm, and the sharp-looking African-American regulars are shoutin’ and gettin’ down to the beat of “Underground.” From the first song rising out of Delray’s bar, Memphis, onstage at Theatre Three, takes us back to 1955 when clubs along Beale Street hosted emerging rhythm and blues singers, and radio stations and recording studios in town were experimenting with the new 45-rpm records that propelled many one-hit wonders and lasting rock stars to fame.
David Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi, wrote the rock-out score and Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, and All Shook Up!) wrote the honest, heartfelt book, loosely based on Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music in the ’50s. The exhilarating show won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical, and ran for three years on Broadway. It has toured here, but T3's production marks its locally produced professional debut.
Bruce R. Coleman directs a 22-member knockout cast with style and verve, and musical director Pam Holcomb-Mclain and a tight eight-piece band keep the original songs and solid rhythm pulsing.
The young, sold-out crowd on opening night whistled and applauded the high-octane performers strutting to choreographer Kelly McCain’s sexy moves. It all happens on Michelle Harvey’s wide open set design, made of giant 78 and 45 records painted on the floor of the arena stage with a recording booth and a bandstand rising on opposite corners.
The boy-meets-girl story is no ordinary romance, but stilted and twisted by the very real segregation and brutal racial bigotry of the time and place, reflected front and center by the ugly racial slurs in the script. Sneering store owners use the N-word to chase off unwanted shoppers, and a white father beats his daughter for her curiosity in black music.
Huey Calhoun (Kyle Igneczi) is a down-on-his-luck dropout who can barely read, can’t keep a job and lives with his fretful mom (a comically bossy Kristal Seid). Huey only comes alive listening to R&B music he picks up on his radio. “I was lost until I found the music of my soul,” he tells the young black singer Felicia (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), after he has wormed his way into her brother’s bar, totally seduced by both the sensual music and the gorgeous girl singing the words.
In a hilarious series of sneaky-brave moves, Huey manages to wangle his way into a mainstream Memphis radio station, where he steps in as the DJ and plays some driving R&B music instead of Perry Como, “who puts me in a coma,” as he drawls to his listeners.
The love affair, forced into back streets by Tennessee’s rigid miscegenation laws, loses steam as Huey’s wildly subversive music gains popularity with white and black teenagers alike, and lands his radio show at the top of the city’s charts. Soon the goofy, brazen white boy has his own local TV show, and a chance for national fame. But success in a society controlled by “whitey” rules comes with tough choices and a personal price—for both rising star Felicia and stubborn homeboy Huey.
Through it all, the enveloping original score carries the spirit of an era that saw pop undergoing the seismic shift from Patti Page and Bing Crosby to the roof-raisin’ likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and company. The big cast is soulful on gospel songs like “Make Me Stronger” and exuberant on boogie songs like “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night,” the single that gets Huey more phone-ins and beer sales than anybody in Memphis.
Marshall-Oliver is a beautiful mezzo-jazz singer, the star power of Jubilee Theatre’s 2015 production of The Color Purple. She’s a charismatic and earthy Felicia, delivering her big songs with both power and sensitivity. She pours out her troubles in “Colored Woman,” and then turns around and sings an upbeat “Someday” backed by a trio of soul singers, creating an instant hit on Huey’s station.
Igneczi, a potent flame in the title role of Uptown Players’ Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is here a wayward, blustery Huey, an essentially naive man who could never do anything right until he wedded his passion for soul music with his brazen promotion skills to become a fantastic DJ and force for change. Whether wheedling the radio station boss (a hilariously mercenary Mikey Abrams) or flirting with Felicia, he sidles up to life, his shoulders sloping away from his wobbling neck, never quite upright. In tacky big shirts and a goofy fedora, Igneczi’s Huey is most himself when he’s moving to the beat or singing along with his pretty lady in his true and hoarsely unique voice. They sound so good together on songs like “The Music of My Soul” and “Love Will Stand” that you really want these two to make it.
There are many terrific performances in this high-energy ensemble. Handsome Babakayode Ipaye, in the role of the janitor who turns out to be the hippest dancer and the sexiest man in Memphis, does a rowdy, hip-swiveling turn singing the insinuating “Big Love.” Darren McElroy, as a mute young black man brought to sudden voice by his outraged friends reacting to racial violence, sings a stunning and calming “Say a Prayer.” Calvin Roberts brings strength and humor to his role as Felicia’s protective big brother, and sings a powerful “She’s My Sister.”
Tory Padden dresses the big cast in a delightful array of bright costumes that evoke the era, including poodle skirts and petticoats, as well as princess dresses for a girl’s big night.
Memphis makes you want to join this happy-high party on the dance floor—or at least twist and shout from your seat on the edge of the action.