Memphis: The Musical – theatre review

Memphis – the Musical” opened Tuesday night at the Times-Union Center in downtown Jacksonville and will continue through Sunday March 23. For tickets, call (904) 442-2929 or visit

The Artist Series is like a travel bureau for North Florida theatre-goers. Last month, we took a two-hour trip to England and France during the era of the First World War with “War Horse.” This week our trip is to Memphis, Tennessee during the 1950s, where thanks to great music and outstanding singing and dancing, we experience the birth of Rock and Roll.

The plot is loosely based on the life and career of Dewey Phillips, who in the early 1950s became a well-known disc jockey in Memphis, playing rhythm and blues, jazz, and other music developed and recorded by African-Americans that was classified as “race music” at that time. Phillips was also the first DJ to play Elvis Presley‘s debut record. He went on to have a successful television career in that city.

In the musical, he is known as Huey Calhoun, and becomes involved with promoting the career of Felicia Farrell, a beautiful African-American singer. He falls in love with her, which, since he is white, is not only socially unacceptable, but poses actual dangers, as they live in the South, where segregation is an entrenched way of life.

Music was a wonderful catalyst that contributed heavily to changes in race relations, especially among the young. “Memphis” contains a history lesson, but also has fabulous music, with a wide range from gospel, rhythm and blues, and rock. By the middle of the first act, your feet will be tapping in time with the numbers on stage.

What was especially impressive about this production was the terrific talent displayed in both the dancing and the singing. Joey Elrose as Huey and Jasmin Richardson playing Felicia could not have been better in their many vocal numbers which they sang with great feeling and intensity. Avoince Hoyles as Gator also has an incredible voice that was a show-stopper. Jerrial Young, as Bobby, is a big, big man who can really move and sing and he was another of the crowd’s favorites.

The issues and obstacles that Huey and Felicia face as they pursue their romance are finally resolved. The journey, although without a fairytale ending, is an interesting one. We will leave the rest of the story, and the reason it won four Tony Awards, for you to discover when you see the show.

The two story set is a visual delight, enhanced by marvelous lighting. Costumes? Yes, dozens of them in fancy styles from the 50’s era in gorgeous colors for both the women and the men.

We mentioned it won the Tony for Best Musical but it also won Tonys for Best Book (by Joe DiPietro), Best Original Score, and Best Orchestration. So don’t miss this musical. As the DJ’s might have said in the 1950s, “Put your gravel grippers on the ground, baby and move on down to downtown Memphis and Beale Street to experience the liveliest musical to come to town this year at the Moran Theatre.”

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.