If stage productions were in the Olympics, Raleigh Little Theatre’s “Memphis” would be medalling gold, a high point in the company’s recent string of successful musicals.
The 2010 Tony Award winner is based loosely on the life of 1950s Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips, one of the first to play black performers’ records on a white radio station. Here he’s Huey, a goofy outsider drawn to the soulful sounds of Beale Street. At one club, he’s bowled over by Felicia, an attractive, talented singer. Soon he’s promised to get her on Memphis’ biggest radio station, something both she and Delray, her brother and owner of the club, think impossible.
Through quirky charms and fearless determination, Huey becomes a deejay and fulfills his promise, after which he proposes marriage to Felicia, naively thinking that their love and talent will override any objections to a mixed-race couple.
David Bryan’s music and Joe DiPietro’s book and lyrics make a respectable stab at portraying 1950s race relations but the musical ultimately softens the blows, falls back on rags-to-riches clichés and ties things up too neatly. None of that matters, however, because captivating, confident performances triumph over any faults.
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Zak Casca’s Huey makes everyone want to believe that love conquers all, his rubbery body English, oddball accent and solid singing voice are completely endearing. As Felicia, Aya Wallace’s vocals mesmerize with their power and her moving characterization makes you pull for Felicia’s happiness, despite tremendous odds.
Supporting players are cast from strength as well. Juan Isler gives Delray a menacing distrust of Huey and fierce protectiveness over his sister. Chase Rivers’ shy janitor Bobby gets cheers when he’s given the chance to sing out. Jade Arnold proves his acting talents as silent bartender Gator, later displaying vocal chops, too. Even Huey’s bigoted mother, Gladys, comes around in time for a big-time gospel number, hilarious in Alison Lawrence’s hands.
Director Patrick Torres gives the show heart and soul. The 24-member cast energetically performs L.D. Burris’ vivid choreography against Elizabeth Newton’s serviceable settings, augmented by Vicki Olson’s nifty Fifties costuming. Michael Santangelo’s nine-piece orchestra keeps things sizzling, often prompting rhythmic clapping in support.
The show is a must-see not only for the engaging actors but also for their true representation of the word “community” in community theater.
Where: Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 25-27, Sept. 1-3 and Sept. 9-10; 3 p.m. Aug. 28, Sept. 4 and Sept. 11.
Tickets: $27 (seniors/students $23)
Info: 919-821-3111 or raleighlittletheatre.org