Tag Archives: Joe McCourt

Bravura Aplenty in Theatre Charlotte’s “Memphis”

Review:  Memphis

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.

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Corey Mitchell Fine-tunes a Kook’s Southern Drawl

In Corey Mitchell’s production of 'Memphis the Musical,' Joe McCourt (right) plays Huey Calhoun, and Dani Burke Huey’s love interest Felicia Farrell.

Preview: Memphis The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

You can see Huey Calhoun as a scavenger, a conman, and an illiterate hick. Or you can see him as a rock ‘n’ roll visionary, a natural salesman, and a quirky promotional genius. However you see Huey, in Memphis the Musical at Theatre Charlotte starting this Friday, you will not find him dull. Based loosely on the career of Memphis radio jock Dewey Phillips, the story by Joe DiPetro may remind you of Hairspray, another musical that took us back to the early days of rock and tensions between the races.

Taking us to the innards of radio as well as TV, Memphis gets us closer to the true heart of rock. South of the Mason-Dixon line, there’s more bigotry from whites — and more wariness from blacks — when Huey not only promotes African American music on the middle of the AM dial, but also romances a black singer.

Without the comical cross-dressing, cartoonish bigots, and outrageous promotional stunts incorporated into Hairspray, the terrain of Memphis will be more difficult to navigate. So it’s exciting to learn that Tony Award winner Corey Mitchell will be directing, Joe McCourt will be starring as Huey, and Dani Burke will be sparking Huey’s passions as femme fatale Felicia Farrell.

Burke has been sensational in her two previous mainstage appearances at the Queens Road barn, first with her lead vocal on “Aquarius” in the 2014 production of Hair and again last year singing “Disco Inferno” in Saturday Night Fever. Since his Theatre Charlotte debut as the star of Godspell in 2008, McCourt has shown us astonishing range, from Roger Davis of Rent to the porn-addicted Trekkie Monster of Avenue Q to low-self-esteem finalist Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

After singing telegrams on land and entertaining on cruise ships at sea, Mitchell came to Charlotte in 2001 by way of Wilmington — and its Opera House Theatre Company — to make his sensational local debut as Hysterium in the Theatre Charlotte production of A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum. Since then, Mitchell has directed or acted in productions at Theatre Charlotte, Davidson Community Players, CPCC, and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

What makes Mitchell such a key part of the Charlotte scene is his teaching and directing in the theatre program at Northwest School of the Arts. And don’t think his special Tony Award for Theatre Education was a bolt out of the blue. Aside from a CL Theatre Award, Mitchell has snagged honors from the Metrolina Theatre Association, the North Carolina Theatre Conference, the Educational Theatre Association, the International Thespian Festival, and National Youth Theatre. Productions directed by Mitchell have garnered at least a dozen Blumey Awards — with seven more nominations still in play for the 2017 ceremonies at Belk Theater on May 21.

You could say he’s connected in the community. It would have been hard for anybody who has performed extensively in Charlotte to catch Mitchell off-guard at auditions when he cast Memphis. He has worked with Burke before in Davidson and is quite familiar McCourt’s work. Tyler Smith, who plays Felicia’s protective brother Delray, is coming off a powerful performance as Coalhouse Walker, fueling CP’s production of Ragtime.

“The three of them bring so much presence and power to the stage,” Mitchell says. “Joe’s work is incredible. The biggest challenge has been just the herculean task Joe has to take on each evening. Huey is in every single scene in this show.”

Surprisingly, Mitchell doesn’t take the view that Memphis is about race, mixed couples, or even the title city.

“I decided to treat the relationship between Huey and Felicia on the micro level of how this man loves this woman,” Mitchell explains. “While Huey has an absolute obsession with black music, he certainly doesn’t fetishize black women in general. He is specifically in love with this woman — and despite her best efforts not to be, Felicia is love with this man. She is, however, a realist.”

Huey was an eccentric goofball when Chad Kimball played him in the original Broadway production, slinking back and forth across the stage, seemingly unable to take two consecutive steps in the same direction. He wasn’t Gomer Pyle, but Huey was very Southern, perhaps in a way that New Yorkers could look down on from afar.

“Trying to portray his unique persona was challenging,” McCourt admits. “We decided to tame the over-exaggerated drawl of Chad Kimball’s original Broadway take so that he doesn’t appear too cartoonish but still hold on to his kooky side. It has been hard finding a balance between too much and not enough [drawl] while trying hard not to insult the Southern accent itself!”

Dani Burke as Felicia Farrell and Joe McCourt as Huey Calhoun.

A new worry materializes when you make the illiterate Huey smarter and more cunning in Charlotte than he was on Broadway. Hopefully, the micro lens that Mitchell wants to apply to Huey and Felicia is helping McCourt to skirt the impression that he is slyly exploiting her commercial potential.

“Huey is a born salesman and smart for being uneducated,” says McCourt. “I don’t see him as a con artist nor cunning. He’s naive to a fault, a free spirit that knows what he wants. Music moved him; so it was no surprise that he fell for Felicia, who not only inspired him musically but also opened his heart to new possibilities. He simply lacked the emotional intelligence and social skills to handle those feelings. I’m walking a fine line trying to make sure he doesn’t come across the wrong way.”

And Mitchell, for all his accolades, is giving McCourt free rein. They’re definitely on the same page when it comes to portraying Southerners.

“I want to strike a balance with him — and the rest of the cast, for that matter — to be Southern without being a caricature,” Mitchell says. “Too often, I see Southern people portrayed onstage as rubes. Joe is an impeccable actor and a professional in the best sense of the word. I try to give him room to play and explore and then nuance in those areas that seem to need a little tweaking.”

Ultimately, the issue that drives a wedge between Huey and Felicia isn’t race or prejudice. It’s an issue that our most gifted theatre artists constantly wrestle with: should I build on what I’ve done here in my hometown, or should I set out for a bigger market in the hopes of greater opportunities and nationwide renown? McCourt senses that Memphis brings Huey a feeling of comfort and security, that he also fears the unknown.

He can identify with the dilemma.

“For me personally,” he says, “I took that leap and moved from a small town south of Buffalo and headed to NYC many years ago for the possibility of making it ‘big.’ Although young and bold, looking back, I was also afraid of failure, which held me back from pursuing many things there. I’m at a different stage in my life now. So building upon what I’ve done here in Charlotte has been very fulfilling. A realtor by day, a performer by night, and a father and husband in between!”

Mitchell is far from cooped-up in Charlotte since his Tony triumph. He has delivered keynote addresses at theatre conferences across the Southeast and traveled to Dubai as a Varkey Teacher Ambassador. Purple Dreams, a documentary about Mitchell’s 2013 production of The Color Purple at Northwest, was released on April 7 to considerable publicity and acclaim.

So it’s likely we’ll be seeing more from both Mitchell and McCourt in Charlotte for years to come. Their best work may still lie ahead.