Lexington Theatre Company presents Broadway show ‘Memphis’
The cultural heart of “Memphis” is proclaimed within the opening minutes of the rock ‘n’ roll saturated, multiple Tony-winning musical presented this week by the Lexington Theatre Company.
“There ain’t no such thing as daytime on Beale Street, only nighttime.”
With that, a story fortified by a social breakthrough — one guided by music but rooted in, and often impeded by, the blinders of segregation-initiated separation — is off and running.
“Memphis” takes us to the city of the same name during the 1950s, a time when rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy and characters surrounding its arrival explore the sound’s emergence in a manner that is, quite literally, black and white.
“One thing that is interesting about the ’50s, specifically, is we’re on the brink of ’60s — a time of revolt, a time of protest, a time of pushing back against the norm,” said “Memphis” director Eric Jackson, the current associate artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City and a performance veteran from Broadway productions of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Young Frankenstein.”
“This show is just on the crest of this social awakening. I find that fascinating — seeing the bubbling of that from our characters hoping and dreaming and going through what they are considering problematic in their world. They are starting to awaken to the fact that we have people telling them, ‘No you can’t do this with black performers. You have to have white performers.’ There is a little bit of that friction that happens that I think a lot of us can see in ourselves that we are not seeing right in our world.
“I find that it’s easy to be in a time period where you are fighting the man, protesting. But there is something about this boiling pot of unease that is something we can all connect to in a weird kind of way.”
“Memphis” is propelled by the zeal of a young white enthusiast of early R&B and soul music named Huey Calhoun. Leap-frogging from store clerk to radio disc jockey to television host, his love of the music is matched by his affection for Felicia Farrell, a young singer who is assured, soulful and, to the detriment of an advancing romance with Huey, black.
“This has been a show we have wanted to do for years,” said Lexington Theatre Company co-founder and artistic director Lyndy Franklin Smith. “When I was in New York working on Broadway, I was in ‘Little Mermaid’ and had several friends in the company (of “Memphis”), so I went to see it multiple times. I loved it. It’s such a beautiful story. It’s such an important story. What’s amazing is that in 2023, we’re finding so much relevance in it.”
Within the story, Huey and Felicia have family figures who are protective almost to a fault. For Felicia, it’s her older brother Delray, owner of the Memphis club where Huey and Felicia meet. He swears retribution should any harm come to his sister as a result of her growing relationship with Huey. The other is Gladys Calhoun, Huey’s prejudicial mother whose transformation through the course of “Memphis” serves as one of the musical’s most vivid examples of acceptance and redemption.
“In this particular story, it’s the power of the music that brings this community together,” said Michele Ragusa, who plays Gladys. Her Broadway credits include “Young Frankenstein,” “Urinetown” and “Ragtime.”
“We have been doing a lot of exploring of that universal feeling, that universal emotion. We find similarities, our common ground, through the music. That’s been a really beautiful tie that binds in this story. It is the art, it is the storytelling through the music. It’s about playing with that kind of idea, about the power of the arts to heal, the power of music to heal. It brings us together to find a community in the music. That’s really, really beautiful.”
As for the music itself, its inspiration comes clearly from the South — specifically, the soul, blues and R&B components that jelled to become rock ‘n’ roll — a sound Huey champions as an escape from the mainstream pop complacency of the day (“This Perry Como is putting me into a Perry coma.”) The music of “Memphis” was actually penned from a more northern source — namely, David Bryan, keyboardist of the famed New Jersey rock band Bon Jovi since its inception in 1983.
“I really wasn’t as familiar with the show as Lyndy was having seen it when it came out,” said Lexington Theatre Company resident music director Brock Terry. “I had been operating under the assumption for a long time, before they ever mentioned doing it, that it was a jukebox musical, confusing it with a Motown musical or something like that.
“Then I realized it was all original songs that were rooted in these various styles to create Memphis soul music, so it touches on what everybody thinks of commonly as the style of Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis. But then there is clearly some jazz and some R&B and definitely some gospel in the score, so it has presented a fun challenge to try and conquer all these different styles musically that eventually come together to create this new sound, the sound of Memphis.”
Making the Lexington Theatre Company’s production distinctive was its choice to capitalize on the youth of its lead characters. Instead of casting more practiced actors in the roles of Huey and Felicia, the company went with performers fresh out of school.
“They (Karsen Guldan and Jalyn Crosby) both just graduated from college, so they are right at representing that younger generation with this authentic, younger energy,” Smith said. “Just watching what they’re bringing to the roles really speaks to this generational change. Being ready to have our eyes and ears opened by the ones who are coming next, that’s really powerful.
“These two young people blew us away. Originally, we were sort of like, ‘Oh, this is how it was done in New York, using more mature actors.’ But we met these two young people and were just like ‘There they are – Huey and Felicia.’ Jalyn just graduated from the University of Alabama and Karsen just graduated from Kent State. They are phenomenally talented young people.
“That’s also part of what we do here at the Lexington Theatre Company – create not only professional theatre, but also this training ground, this launching pad for the next generation. So watching them take flight is wonderful.”
When: The Lexington Theatre Company’s production of “Memphis” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 3 and 4, 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 5 and 1 p.m. on Aug 6.
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short.
Tickets: $50-$87 through ticketmaster.com.