It’s hard to believe we’re halfway through the Gateway Playhouse’s summer season, with the rock ’n’ roll sensation Memphis currently rocking the theater in Bellport. Memphis made quite a splash on Broadway during its run there, earning four Tony Awards, including for Best Musical. From the first scene of Memphis it’s clear why.
Starting with the raw and real ballad “Underground” we’re taken back in time to 1950s Tennessee, where people were referred to as black or white and segregation was the norm. The underground “black” club, owned by Delray Jones (Melvin Abston), where his sister Felicia Farrell (Moeisha McGill) headlines, is the place that this tale of love, rock ’n’ roll and revolution begins.
In walks the very white Huey Calhoun (Josh Canfield), an awkward young man who almost instantly falls in love with both the music and the club’s sultry singer Felicia. Calhoun is a liberal-minded soul in a time when the majority of the population was racist. He promises Felicia and her skeptical, protective brother that he’ll get her music on the radio and make her a star. With some hilarious antics, our young and eager Calhoun becomes the most popular DJ in Memphis, the first in Memphis to play “colored” music on a “white” radio station. Canfield’s portrayal of the overeager, love-struck boy is adorably endearing. He’s the beacon of light in this sometimes-dark story, and the pairing of Canfield and McGill as Huey and Felicia is phenomenal—their chemistry sizzles on stage and you can’t help but root for this couple, even though the odds are stacked against them.
The captivating cast pulls you into their story and, before you know it, you’re enthralled with the incredibly talented cast of performers. McGill commands the stage with a voice as smooth and silky as melted chocolate. The husky quality to her tone is alluring and contrasts perfectly with the clear, powerful voice of Canfield as the lovable, idealistic Huey.
The mighty vocals of Abston and Horace V. Rogers as Gator are awe-inspiring. When the formerly-mute character Gator begins to sing “Say A Prayer,” you’d better hold on, because you’re in for quite a ride and will be blown away by Rogers’ intensity, the words seeming to come from deep in his soul. Both men are powerhouses, fully committed to every number.
With a story that’s timely and undeniably controversial, the cast sang and danced their hearts out, making for one truly amazing theatrical experience. You become so immersed in the lives of the characters that when intermission comes you’re left blinking, stunned and voracious for more.
The second act is even more compelling, as the characters are tested and tempted at every turn. Forces outside of their control are dissolving Felicia and Huey’s bond. The promise of fame and stardom in New York is too enticing for Felicia to pass up. The ballad “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails” is Felicia’s love song to Huey that will tug at your heartstrings.
Do Felicia and Huey stay together? Does Felicia become as famous as she always dreamed she’d be? In an uncertain time in our nation’s history, this original production uses the bonds of love and family to illustrate the atmosphere of America in the 1950s. The love story between Felicia and Huey is at the center of the turmoil and violence encircling them. Bringing the best of Broadway to Long Island is what Gateway does best, and Memphis is no exception.
Memphis plays at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport through July 21. Visit thegateway.org for tickets and info.