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1000th 'Memphis' performance displays energy

Since its Broadway premiere in 2009, Memphis has claimed the title of “Best Musical of the Year” according to the Tony Awards, and continues to impress with its 1,000th performance. The musical is held at the Shubert Theatre in New York.

It is the early 1950s and in the heart of Memphis, TN, lies a rowdy, underground bar owned by Delray Farrell (J. Bernard Calloway). The atmosphere of this bohemian hangout is always brimming with animation, as each evening the vocal talent of Delray’s soulful younger sister, Felicia (Montego Glover) is highlighted for the patrons.

In an era where racial prejudice runs rampant, the bar is never visited by white people. As such, the siblings and their tight-knit community of friends are shocked when their establishment is frequented by Huey Calhoun (Adam Pascal), a poor and eccentrically dressed white boy, who is drawn in by Felicia’s remarkable and heartfelt performances.

Oblivious to their differences in color, as well as to the negative social effects his association with such people will inevitably bring, Huey is set on striking up friendships with these lively people; their passion for rock ‘n’ roll and blues music far surpasses anything he has heard in the music broadcast on local radio stations.

Huey has never held a job in his life, however he embarks on an out of character mission to remedy his town’s lamentable lack of truly good musical experience by bringing Felicia the recognition she deserves.

This uphill battle begins as Huey gets a job as the DJ of a local radio station, WHBQ, and enlightens his listeners with hits by black artists. Although this genre of music is initially met with trepidation by his more conservative audience, due to his infectious personality and well-meaning heart, his popularity soon soars among the young people.

As his feelings for Felicia deepen, Huey becomes better acquainted with Bobby (James Monroe Iglehart), who coincidentally works as a janitor at WHBQ. Huey is also introduced to Gator (Derrick Baskin), a gentle but silent employee at Delray’s bar, whose muteness is a result of the traumatization he experienced at age five when he saw his father die.

Huey’s reputation spreads throughout Memphis and he becomes increasingly well-liked by the younger crowd. However, his relationship with Felicia evokes disapproval from his mother Nancy Opel and dangerously violent opposition from the white supremacists who refuse to tolerate interracial fraternization.

As Huey’s fame grows and Felicia’s talent simultaneously becomes more widely known, the pair encounter amazing opportunities that have the potential to greatly further their careers, but may also prove detrimental to their relationship.

As this was the 1,000th performance of Memphis, the cast?s excitement and passion for acting, singing and dancing was obvious and shined through their individuality and dedication to their character. From the first scene in Delray?s bar, with the opening number “Underground,” I knew I was in for an awe-inspiring show.

Pascal’s performance as Huey Calhoun made him one of the best live actors I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing. I’ve been a huge fan of Pascal’s since I first saw the movie version of Rent a few years ago, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see him perform live. It was truly a privilege to be in the presence of so much talent.

His distinct voice brought a raw, honest feeling to his songs. This contributed to the way viewers relate to his character and by the end of the show I felt emotionally connected to Huey. Pascal did a remarkable job of connecting with his character and playing Huey in such a way that clearly showed the various aspects of his personality without giving the appearance of being hammy or trying too hard.

Huey is quirky and original: he is unwilling to conform to the racist ideals of his community. His honesty and simplicity combined to create a charming, impish young man, whose ignorance regarding the severity of his association with Felicia reaches a point of danger.

Glover also greatly impressed me. I enjoyed the soul she put into each of her songs. She is an extremely gifted singer, whose range and ability to hold out unbelievably long notes showcased her vocal proficiency. The conflict she experienced as a black woman trying to make it as a singer, on top of trying to keep her relationship with Huey a secret was heart-wrenching. The way she conveyed her emotions to the audience through her facial expressions and vocal intonations contributed to the well-roundedness of her amazing performance.

Baskin’s role as Gator was unique, as he remained silent for almost the first half of the show. Despite his lack of lines, his gentle nature and kind heart shined through his actions and expressions. The most moving moment of Memphis occurred when Gator broke his decades of silence by singing “Say a Prayer” after witnessing the brutality of a white mob that attacks Huey and Felicia after the pair is caught together in public. This scene reduced me to a sobbing mess and it was not until a few minutes into intermission that I regained my composure.

There were several especially dark and intense underlying aspects to Memphis. In keeping with the obvious theme of racism, there were specific examples of the extreme levels of the cruelty people reached as a result of their prejudice. A white father unforgivingly slaps his teenage daughter for listening to ?black music.? Delray exhibits a nasty scar that serves as a reminder of the treatment he received after drinking out of a white water fountain at the age of 14.

Inglehart?s role as Bobby was carried out with great enthusiasm and energy. I couldn?t believe he was able to maintain control of his voice and breathing because he danced and jumped around the stage during his performance of ?Big Love? on Huey?s show. He is a lovable character whose laid back personality complemented those who are more intense, like Delray.

The show closed with a duet between Huey and Felicia: ?Steal Your Rock ?N? Roll.? Although the mood was bittersweet, their voices blended beautifully, until the entire cast joined in, creating a high energy vibe that brought the crowd to their feet for a standing ovation.

After the show ended, I was so emotionally affected that I could hardly contain myself, so I rushed out to the lobby to purchase the soundtrack. I was very disappointed when I learned that all of the cast except Pascal is featured on the CD. This dismayed me, because his unique voice and way of making himself transparent while singing constituted 85 percent of my desire to own the soundtrack.

This is not to say that the rest of the cast does not merit my buying the CD, nor am I in any way dissatisfied with Chad Kimball’s voice, who plays Huey in the recorded version. I am merely a huge fan of Pascal and absolutely adore his vocal style.

I have the utmost respect for actors, singers or dancers who are able to evoke strong emotions from me as a viewer and each major performer definitely accomplished that feat.

Due to the powerful storyline, the incredible acting, singing and dancing featured in Memphis, this was by far my most enjoyable Broadway experience. I would take up the opportunity to see it again in a second.

For more play reviews, read the March 18 article, Hoffman, Garfield set standard for ‘Salesman’.

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