Where Music Found A Common Chord “MEMPHIS” – Players by the Sea Theatre Review

Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen

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Our friends at Players by the Sea and the Lazzara Family Foundation present “Memphis,” the dynamic 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical; the production opened July 22, 2016 and will remain on stage through August 13 at 106 6th Street North in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Call 904-249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.org for tickets. We recommend calling early, as ticket demand is high.

With music and lyrics by David Bryan (Bon Jovi keyboardist) and book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change), the musical is loosely based on a real personality. Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips (1926 – 1968) was one of the region’s first white DJ’s to feature “race music” – rock, gospel, rhythm and blues, jazz – recorded by African-American artists.

In “Memphis,” which is set in the 1950s, the on-air DJ is Huey Calhoun, who becomes involved with promoting the career of Felicia Farrell, a beautiful and talented African-American singer. He falls in love with her, which is not only socially unacceptable but dangerous, as racial segregation was an entrenched way of life at the time.

Memphis, Players By The Sea, Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen
Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen

Music was a major impetus that contributed to changes in race relations, especially among the young. “Memphis” relates a history lesson, but is also filled with fabulous music. We noticed that by the middle of Act One, most feet were tapping in time with the songs. But what was most impressive about the production was the amazing talent displayed along with the dancing and singing.

Huey was portrayed by the charismatic and picture-perfect Rodney Holmes. He is relatively new to the local theatre scene, and made his local debut in Theatre Jacksonville’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” He moved here from Colorado, where he performed on a professional level in a number of musicals, which included “Damn Yankees,” “Ruthless,” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Memphis, Players By The Sea, Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen
Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen

The talented Rashawnda Foster is making her community theatre debut as Felica. She is a graduate of the University of West Florida and DASOTA and has previously appeared in films with religious themes by Mega Mind Productions. Ms. Foster can belt out a song with the best of them and was excellent in this role.

There are so many great voices in this show in featured roles. Milton Threadcraft III, whom we loved in “Ragtime” at JU, portrays Felicia’s brother Delray, who owns the nightclub on Beale Street where Huey and Felicia meet. Gloria Ware, who plays Huey’s mother, has appeared in a number of local productions after relocating from New York several years ago, and recently appeared at Players as Lady Bird Johnson in “All The Way.” She really brings down the house when she sings “Change Don’t Come Easy” in Act Two.

Memphis, Players By The Sea, Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen
Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen

Making his Players debut, Sam Brown, who has previously performed with The 5 & Dime Theatre and Stage Aurora, appeared as a nightclubber, and wowed the audience with “Big Love.” If you saw “La Cage” or “Aida” at Players, you will remember Brandon Hines. In “Memphis” he plays Gator and joins Mama in her songs. “

We have seen Willie Beaton II, a DASOTA and Florida School of the Arts graduate, on stage many times, and especially enjoyed his DASOTA performance as the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast.” As Wailin’ Joe, Beaton sings “Scratch My Itch” a song filled with incendiary pleading. Theatre veteran David Sacks appeared in a short and unusual solo, while impersonating the legendary crooner Perry Como. He also has some smaller roles, including that of a DJ spinning records by Roy Rodgers.

The humorous Joseph Stearman appears in a major non-singing role as Mr. Simmons, the owner of a Memphis radio station, who launches Huey’s career. Other members of the cast in featured roles included Allen Morton as store owner Mr. Collins, Sherry Rosen as his shop assistant Clara, and Brian Johnson as a New York TV executive.

The large and energetic ensemble did the fantastic dance numbers as well as the vocals for many of the songs. The ensemble included Clayton Ridley, Jennifer O’Brien, Tamia Brinkley, Bertha Jones, Tre Ventriglio, LaTara Osorio, Winter Hughes, Kathryn Seymore, Linzy Lauren, Natasha Anderson, Carol Hardern, Arielle Bryant, Arden Trusty, Tina Wilson, Jennifer Johnson, Eric Yarham, Jamil Abdur-Rahman, and Chad Krug.

Memphis, Players By The Sea, Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen
Photos by Chance Usina & Ramona Ramadeen

“Memphis” was directed by Jereme Raickett; this was his directing debut and judging by the result, we are expecting many future directing assignments to follow. Mr. Raickett wears many theatre hats. He is Players Production Manager, and a fine actor, who has appeared in a number of productions at Players. He is also a regular performer in musicals at the Alhambra Theatre and Dining.

The Choreographer, J’Royce Jata, is a DASOTA graduate and did a marvelous job with “Memphis.” Mr. Jata currently lives in New York, where he works as an actor/dancer and choreographer.

The Musical Director Meachum Clarke is new to our local community theatre scene, but has over twenty-six years of experience as a musician, songwriter, producer, vocal couch, choral director, and recording artist. The quality of this production is a testimony to his talents. Band members included Anthony Felton (Conductor/Keyboard), Alex Hernandez (Horns), Greg Balut (Horns), David Ott (Guitar), R. Tyler Beachtle (Bass), Jaydin Mitchell (Trombone), and Jewel Johnson (Drums).

Additional Production Crew: Jim Wiggins (Lighting Designer), Katie Dawson (Scenic Design), Keisha Burr (Costume Designer), Claire Camino (Props & Set Dressing), Monique Franklin (Stage Manager).

The issues and obstacles that Huey and Felicia face as they pursue their romance are finally resolved and the journey, although lacking a fairytale ending, is an interesting one. We will leave the rest of the story and the reason for this musical having won four Tony Awards for you to discover when you see the show.

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.

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