By Perry Tannenbaum
As you may have found out, ignorant buffoons can make it big in America. So why not ignorant eccentrics? If Huey Calhoun didn’t make it big as a ‘50s deejay in Memphis, the musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, then his fall from celebrity wouldn’t be nearly as reckless or spectacular. When he has lost his local TV show, tossed away his shot at national fame, and blown his romantic chances with the R&B queen he has catapulted to stardom, Huey defiantly delivers the anthem he has earned, “Memphis Lives in Me.”
“One more drink and you’ll see God everywhere,” sings Huey in tribute to his chief consolation: a bluesy Beale Street honky-tonk bar. It’s the culmination of a Broadway- caliber performance that Joe McCourt is currently giving at Theatre Charlotte in the lead role that DiPietro patterned after legendary rock pioneer Dewey Phillips.
Contrary to the preproduction signals that McCourt and director Corey Mitchell were sending, McCourt hasn’t muted Huey’s nasal drawl or portrayed him as much less of a rube than Chad Kimball did on Broadway. That’s a good thing. “Sounds just like him!” my wife Sue concurred at intermission.
Whether it’s the pork-pie hat and costume by designer Rachel Engstrom, or Huey’s sidling walk – seemingly unable to unbend his knees, straighten his back, or take two consecutive steps in the same direction – McCourt also looks a lot like Kimball’s Tony-nominated portrait. Perhaps rehearsals with Dani Burke as hot young singer Felicia Farrell revealed that, if McCourt were to tone down Huey’s goofball attributes, he would come off as more of a creepy stalker.
Ultimately, McCourt has arrived at a very likable blend of naïveté, chutzpah, neediness, awkwardness, and hipness – not the easiest elements to combine – and as usual, he torches every song he touches. For her part, Burke hasn’t lost any of the voltage she first brought to the Queens Road barn when she electrified audiences with “Aquarius” in the 2014 production of Hair.
Felicia isn’t nearly the plum role Huey is, but Burke proves to be fairly formidable in her first full-fledged lead. A few of Engstrom’s creations glam her up, and I liked Burke’s regality at the “WRNB” studio, where Huey has the nerve to ask Felicia to perform live. We’ve only seen Felicia in a seedy honky-tonk before, and the top radio station in Memphis also looks pretty shabby, but Burke demands, “Where are my backup singers?” as if she’s already a star.
What’s happening here in Memphis doubly crosses racial lines as Huey brings black music to the middle of the AM radio dial and presumes to romance Felicia while promoting her talent. Both of these audacities bring powerful characters into the flow of the action. Station owner Mr. Simmons is easily the most comical of these, and Mike Carroll beautifully brings out the businessman’s starchy pomposity – and astonishment – each time a new Huey atrocity increases his listening audience, his sponsor’s satisfaction, and finally his own teenage son’s admiration.
I hardly even remembered the role of Huey’s mom from the original Broadway production, so I was fairly blown away by the heart – and the pipes – that Allison Snow Rhinehart brings to Mama. Of course, she’s as déclassé as Huey, so his outsized dreams and successes are a total shock to her, not to mention coming home one day to find his black girlfriend in her kitchen. But Mama’s prejudices occupy the same space as her love and loyalty, so Rhinehart has a couple of gratifying surprises in store for us after intermission.
Least surprising, after his triumph as Coalhouse Walker in last winter’s CPCC production of Ragtime, is Tyler Smith’s powerful portrayal of Delray, Felicia’s fiercely protective brother and owner of the dive where Huey discovers her. It doesn’t take long to catch on to Smith’s power, since he’s toe-to-toe with Burke in the opening “Underground” ensemble, and he’ll prove equally capable of facing off with McCourt on “She’s My Sister” when Delray flares up about Felicia’s interracial affair. In fact, when the catastrophe strikes that ends Act 1, I suspect that Mitchell may have imposed some unnecessary restraint on Delray’s ferocity.
But there was more than enough power from all the frontliners to justify the “Why didn’t you tell me about this place?” comments I was overhearing during the break. Apparently these newbies were undeterred by the lackluster scenic design by Chris Timmons or the generic choreography by Ashlyn Summer, which never reminded me of what my teen elders were dancing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or Alan Freed’s The Big Beat. Victoria Fisher’s lighting design goes a long way to redeeming the drab sets, and music director Zachary Tarlton makes sure there is always a lively jump to Bryan’s score when needed.
Maybe the best reason to be wowed by Theatre Charlotte’s Memphis is how deep the excellence goes in this cast. After AJ White literally glows in a lemon yellow outfit as Wailin’ Joe on the first R&B track that Huey spins, there are two marvelous rebirths among the black folk that Huey’s musical mission reaches. First there’s Traven Harrington as Bobby, the radio station janitor, who will pile one shocker upon another before he’s done. Then there’s Clayton Stephenson, whose transformation as Gator may leave you weeping as Act 1 climaxes.
It ain’t perfect, but Mitchell has directed one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen on Queens Road in 30+ years of covering Theatre Charlotte. Chances are better than even that Memphis will live in you if you’re in the house when this company comes out for their final bows.