“Memphis” – Phoenix Theatre

Theater Review – September 22, 2014


Phoenix Theatre
Phoenix, AZ

I’ve said it before and I’ll shout it again, Phoenix Theatre knows how to produce marvelous musical theater productions!  Their latest hit is an energized, dynamic, and moving staging of the musical “Memphis” conceived by artistic director Michael Barnard.  Not only is “Memphis” an enormously entertaining show but it deals with the deplorable intolerance of racial and cultural discrimination during the 1950s.  “Memphis” entertains mightily but also leaves audiences with a thoughtful look at one of this country’s biggest challenges.  What a show!

Set in the show’s title city, we meet a struggling but great black singer, Felicia Farrell, who is discovered by a forward-thinking radio DJ, Huey Calhoun.  Huey campaigns to expose Felicia to white and black listeners but he’s rudely reminded that whites don’t idolize black entertainers.  Huey fights the situation and Felicia gets hurt in the clamor to launch her career.

Book author Joe Dipietro crafts a richly hued story that doesn’t skirt intolerance or the coming of racial acceptance.  David Bryan’s impressive score establishes the era’s sound while providing the cast with abundant opportunities to dance and sing explosively while entertaining ferociously.

Barnard lets his exciting “Memphis” explode all over the Phoenix Theatre stage and it’s hard for audiences to sit quietly and not clap and stomp their feet along with the vibrant tempos the cast follows.  Alan Ruch’s jivingly hot orchestra keeps the show’s driving beat going with soaring musical brashness.  Sets, costumes, and exquisite isolating lighting are superlative.  Yes, Phoenix Theatre musicals look, sound, and move as well or better than the professional touring Broadway musicals that play ASU Gammage.

Barnard has combined an imported and local cast that creates a brilliant ensemble that thoughtfully develop the musical’s characters.  Especially bright is Tia DeShazor’s sharp Felicia.  She sings and dances with gusto but gets the part’s racial subtleties with sincere perfection.  It is the singer Felicia who experiences the worst discrimination.  Opposite her is CJ Pawlikowski’s idolized Huey.  This actor convinces that Huey desires everyone be treated fairly and he rocks his songs with vibrant assurance.  The pair plays off each other with sincere devotion and believable respect.

There are several performers who distinguish themselves in supporting roles including Lisa Fogel who plays Huey’s mother, Gladys, with growing and touching sincerity, Miguel Jackson makes Gator stand out, and Chris Eriksen moves the bigoted Mr. Simmons to understand that differences are attractive.

Phoenix Theatre’s “Memphis” is a soulful delight that provides grand entertainment but also tells the awful story of race relations in this country.  “Memphis” continues through October 12.  For tickets, call the Phoenix Theatre box office at 602-254-2151 or order online at www.phoenixtheatre.com.

Grade: A