THE BERKELEY PLAYHOUSE STAGES A FOOT STOMPING, ROCKING ‘MEMPHIS’ THE BEAT BEGINS WITH HUEY CALHOUN
The R&B sounds of MEMPHIS the musical is now on stage at Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Arts Center through March 15th. The BPH continues their 12th season with this dynamic musical that originally debuted locally. MEMPHIS is one of the many Broadway bound musicals that Silicon Valley TheatreWorks helped to develop. It made its world premiere in 2004 and in 2010 it won four Tony Awards including Best Musical, beating out the other homegrown production that year “American Idiot”. MEMPHIS includes a book by Joe DiPietro and music by David Bryan.
This production marks the first East Bay regional staging of this show and director Brendan Simon says that MEMPHIS is one of his favorite shows “(this) story must be told right now. We are living in and through the darkest and most divisive time in American history that many of us have ever experienced.”
Simon and casting director Michael Patrick Wiles have assembled a talented cast of 21 terrific actors to give this 50’s look a brilliant rhythm and blues spirit. MEMPHIS is based loosely on the life of Memphis DJ, Dewey Philips, one of the first white disc jockeys who took a risk to spin African American music for a white audience in the 50s.
Huey is played by the dazzling local favorite Sean Okuniewicz. Huey is a frenzied, exuberant individual who was a great pitch man. He talked his way into becoming a DJ at an all white music radio station where Perry Como and Patti Page are the stars. Huey mixes the music of white America with tracks of rhythm and blues melodies becoming an instant success with the teenagers but with the disapproval of their parents. Okuniewicz sings “The Music of My Soul” to gain the attention of this new talented black singer named Felicia Farrell.
Felicia is played by the ravishing Loreigna Sincair. Of course, he falls for her and things get very dicey in segregated Memphis. Huey is taken down by a gang of racist thugs, which leads to his downfall and dependency on alcohol and pain pills. But his spirit never failed him.
Okuniewicz and Sincair make the perfect team in “Love Will Stand When all Else Fails” a profound song that tells their intricate story. With our current Trump era and renewed racial conflict, MEMPHIS is a remarkably relevant show. With a white deejay on a passionate quest to bring black rock and roll music to the attention of white America. Huey's conservative mother Gladys, played by the undaunting Deborah Del Mastro, and Felicia's solicitous brother Delray, played by the authentic Jordan Olivier Verde, both over react to their budding love. Huey's zeal in taking on racism in the music industry, combined with his own white privilege, threatens the talented Felicia's future and her safety.
David Bryan's music brims with energy. Including “Scratch my Itch” sung by the rocking company. Director Simon and his talented cast bring MEMPHIS to life with the joyous choreography of Christina Lazo on the Radio Station design set conceived by Sarah Phykitt. The banner of Phykitt’s design includes a huge radio dial that changes as Huey’s career rises and falls. Music Director Daniel Alley and his eight piece band make this production a thrilling evening of Rock and Roll. Bryant's Tony-winning score is brought to life by this talented team and is highlighted in the gospel show stopper “Make Me Stronger”.
All of the leads are first rate actor-singers with excellent stage presence. Okuniewicz convincingly portrays a charismatic DJ & TV host which revolutionized the new soul of mainstream music. Verde as Delray and Cadarious Mayberry as Bobby contribute outstanding vocals, especially in the spirited ”Everybody Wants To Be Black”. CJ Smith as the station manager Mr. Simmons plays a dual-faced role at times villain and sometimes friend, but always about making money. In his song “That’s Not Possible” Smith mixes with the cast well, and it is cleverly choreographed by Lazo.
The shining cast and ensemble include Charles Woodson Parker, Jordan Smith, Marcel Saunders, Jennifer Stark, Joe Ayers, Chanel Tilghman, Z Hansen, Maya Phillips, Jennifer Frazier. Hanah Rose Nardone, Claire Noelle Pearson, Kamaria McKinney, Montel Anthony Nord, and Jeffrey May Hyche.
Another stand out performance includes the amazing tenor voice of Jon-David Randle, as the passionate Gator, who is mute during the first act. As the scene intensifies, Gator suddenly found his voice to sing the Act 1 finale “Say a Prayer” which brings down the house. Randle showed off his pitch perfect voice and was commanding in that number. Another highlight of this talented cast is Del Mastro as momma Gladys Calhoun and her show stopper “Change Don’t Come Easy” with Randle, Verde, and Mayberry.
The company is a knockout in their supporting roles especially Jordan Smith, Marcel Saunders, Joe Ayers and the impressive Jennifer Stark. It is the singing and dancing ensemble that provides some of the show’s best moments. In addition to their strong vocals in “Radio” the dancers bring boundless energy to Lazo’s be-bop beat driven choreography.
The black underground rock 'n' roll club where Huey meets Felicia springs to life under the clever mood lighting of designer Cameron Pence. Lisa Danz’s stylish costumes enhance the visual appeal of the production. She kept Huey’s look funky and a charming mess while making Felicia look elegant and sophisticated. Evan Favela and Elizabeth Johnson created all the props that include many classic mic stands, jump ropes and radio gear to create the studio look for the show.
Makeup and Wig Master Lexie Lazear kept the cast authentic and Lyle Barrere’s sound design was vibrant, his sound team Desired Effect brought that passion and sizzle to the ensemble numbers. The dedicated BPH stage manager Erin Sweeny and assistant Shannon Carroll kept the 21 member company on cue with the many entrances and costume changes.
The real record spinner Mr Calhoun (Dewey Phillips) is just a footnote in the phenomenal history of rock 'n' roll, in the end he died an alcoholic and forgotten man. He is credited for making that historic crossover to R&B to mainstream audiences. He set the tone for Dick Clark and others. In one of the show’s touching closing number "Memphis Lives in Me," Huey reflects on his past.
As the ground breaking Huckadoo Calhoun, Okuniewicz is a tour de force, with his powerhouse voice, acting, he hits a homerun with his exhilarating performance. Huey and Company close the show with the very moving and rousing “Steal Your Rock n Roll’ that brings the house to their feet and finally lets you be part of the heart and soul of this show. Next up at the BPH is IN THE HEIGHTS that opens April 3rd alongside Bay Area Musicals, and CenterRep productions - all to celebrate the film version set for this June. This summer NEWSIES takes the stage at the BPH beginning June 19th. In the meantime MEMPHIS is a crowd pleaser, and as Huey says “Huckadoo” don’t miss this musical. Pay what you can Thursday night Feb 27!
The Berkeley Playhouse Presents
Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro Music and Lyrics by David Bryan
Based on a concept by George W.George
Directed by Brendan Simon
Music Director Daniel Alley
Choreographer Christina Lazo
Must Close March 15, 2020
Julia Morgan Center for the Arts,
College Ave Berkeley Ca
Running Time 2 hours 30 min
Memphis (Pay What You Can)
Julia Morgan Theater – Thu, Feb 27, 2020 07:00 PM
Photo's by Ben Krantz Studio
Memphis the real DJ Dewey Phillips with Jerry Lee Lewis- 1957
Memphis features: Sean Okuniewicz as Huey Calhoun, Loreigna Sinclair as Felicia Farrell, Jourdan Olivier-Verde as Del Ray Farrell, Deborah Del Mastro as Gladys Calhoun, CJ Smith as Mr Simmons, Jon-David Randle as Gator, Cadarious Mayberry as Bobby, Charles Woodson Parker as Mr Collins / Dj / Father / Gordon Grant, Jordan Smith as Buck Wiley / Martin Holton / Photographer, Marcel Saunder as Wailin Joe / Rev Hobson / Dj / Trio / Ensemble, Jennifer Stark as Clara / Mother, Joe Ayers as Frank Dryer / Ensemble, Chanel Tilghman as Ethel / Selma / Ensemble, Z Hansen as Perry Como / Ensemble, Maya Phillips as Bessie / Ensemble, Jennifer Frazier as Laverne / Ensemble, Hanah Rose Nardone as Teenager / Ensemble, Claire Noelle Pearson as Double Dutch Girl / Ensemble, Kamaria Mckinney as Double Dutch Girl / Ensemble, Montel Anthony Nord as Trio / Ensemble, and Jeffrey May Hyche as Trio / Ensemble.