By Lauren Van Hemert
For me, a good musical consists of a good story, good music, and a good book (where many musicals fall short in my opinion). Sometimes, the story might be somewhat interesting, but the book as it’s written, not so much so. Throw in some good performances, choreography, or theatricality and you have the makings of a great show. It doesn’t have to be too grand, dramatic, or heavy, à la Rent or Les Miserables, just smart, thoughtful, and even somewhat relevant.
Fortunately, the Cape Fear Regional Theatre (CFRT) production of the Tony Award-winning musical Memphis checks all those boxes.
Inspired by Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s, Memphis tells the story of Huey Calhoun, a melophile with an affinity towards rhythm and blues. Huey wangles his way on the radio where he tries to change the hearts and minds of listeners one song at a time, including Felicia, a black club singer looking for her big break. The takeaway here is that change doesn’t come easy, whether it is 1950 or 2019, and that only through love, and maybe rock ‘n’ roll, do we stand a chance at overcoming intolerance.
Matthew Mucha’s boyish charm makes his charismatic, enthusiastic, and exuberant portrayal of Huey that much more believable. Shonica Gooden is coming off a turn in the Broadway production of Hamilton and is without a doubt a consummate pro. Her fiery portrayal of Felicia is vulnerable, unpretentious, and spirited. From her devout delivery of the spiritual Make Me Stronger to her fierce performance of Colored Woman, she tears down the house. But perhaps the most intense performance of the evening belongs to Dani Burke who takes on the role of Delray Farrell, Felicia’s sister, in a gender fluid casting decision that is a first in the history of the show.
Many musicals falter or lag a little bit in the second act. This one doesn’t due in part to Suzanne Agins’ efficient direction and Ellenore Scott’s high-energy, high-stepping, infectious choreography. No need to wait for the big 11 o’clock number here, because Act II is packed with lots of show stopping numbers, including David Robbins’ falsetto-squealing, scene-stealing performance of Big Love, Kathy Day’s career-defining performance of Change Don’t Come Easy, and Mucha’s impassioned rendition of Memphis Lives in Me.
Aside from some stellar performances and snappy showstoppers, another thing this production profits from is the venue itself. This 309-seat theater in the heart of Fayetteville is so intimate it feels as if we, the audience, are sitting in Delray’s hole-in-the-wall club. Consequently, folks in the audience become so engaged they respond to what’s happening on the stage by calling out or vocalizing their feelings mid-show.
Although there are several Triangle-based actors in this show, I wasn’t planning on reviewing Memphis because, in terms of our theater coverage, Cumberland County is outside our geographic area. However, this show is so worthy of a hockadoo holler and hurray, that it would be a shame not to show it some big love.
Memphis runs through May 26th. For more information visit: http://www.cfrt.org/.