‘Memphis’ at Berkeley Playhouse is the music of your soul

Memphis_1
Huey (Sean Okuniewicz) falls for the talented Felicia (Loreigna Sinclair) in “Memphis,” running through March 15th in Berkeley. (Ben Krantz studio photo)

Huey Calhoun is a white guy who wastes no time flexing his black music bona fides.

It kicks off as he walks through the doors of Delray’s underground bar, a place where white people do not dare enter. Based on the exuberance of Delray’s denizens, they ain’t tryin’ to let the whites in anyway, and have no idea how Huey got through. They have the energy, they’ve got the moves, and they tear up the joint with the best music in the 1950s segregated South.

But Huey needs himself a piece of that sound, that rhythm and blues, the piercing soul for which goosebumps were invented. While tickling the piano and giving a bit of his own version, these folks who are rightly skeptical of the tall, spunky kid with a soulful sound give him a shot.

The Berkeley Playhouse’s delightful and spirited production of Broadway hit “Memphis,” checks all the right boxes of musicianship, individual performances, smoking choreography and scintillating truth. So much of what has made David Bryan and Joe Dipietro’s hit musical intoxicating is showcased and packaged nicely in this interpretation.

Huey (Sean Okuniewicz) is well-aware of the challenge he faces when it comes to everything he wants in life. His time on earth is measured by how much he can wear down and out will his competition, despite the clear and warranted skepticism of Delray Farrell (Jourdán Olivier-Verdé). Ultimately, those who relent are rewarded, namely the lovely Felicia Farrell (Loreigna Sinclair), who is the centerpiece talent of the club and the apple of her brother’s eye.

Slowly but surely, Huey starts to win folks over by sheer will, his mouth constantly writing checks his ass miraculously cashes. He keeps his record store job by selling black music to white kids who treat the vinyl like an illegal drug, hiding it from their Perry Como and Roy Rogers-loving parents. And his audition for a spot as a radio disc jockey consists of locking himself into the booth of the station armed with tunes such as “Everybody Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night.”

Ultimately, as they all seem to do, radio station owner Mr. Simmons (CJ Smith) relents when he discovers that black music is good for business, with sponsorship deals lining up. And Huey himself is just getting started. His next mission is personal and professional – getting the lovely Felicia on his airwaves and into his arms.

Where the show goes from there is quite compelling. What we learn is that Huey, for all his ambition and drive, has his own self-imposed limitations. He is a big fish in a small pond, and only when life tests him does he realize that the small pond works. He is who he is, and his contributions to the best sounds of his era don’t need to reach beyond Beale Street.

The strength of the show is in how each of the critical moments are dealt with, eased with the steady and sure hand of director Brendan Simon. He has also crafted a very solid cast, despite moments that needed a bit more precision and truth. Okuniewicz leads the charge with a boundless and infectious energy, a performer who can bounce off a wall in one moment and bear down to play exquisite loss the next. His introduction with “Music of My Soul” is quite lovely, while the affirmation of “Memphis Lives in Me” proves heartbreaking.

Other performances are quite strong, led by Christina Lazo’s fierce choreography on Sarah Phykitt’s multi-layered set design, grounded with musical director Daniel Alley and his eight-piece orchestra. Sinclair’s vulnerability in a range-filled character along with Olivier-Verdé’s rage from oppression makes for a rich confluence of sensibilities. Felicia is also given some of the strongest stances, especially when it comes to reminding Huey that no matter all the good he has done, he can be white anytime he wants – her blackness never goes away. Her vocals in “Colored Woman” confirms that point hard.

In a variety of roles, Marcel Saunders proves himself a worthy song and dance man, and Deborah Del Mastro’s turn as Huey’s grizzled mom Gladys is fantastic, backed up by a rich and robust gospel choir. A sharp Cadarious Mayberry is a moving maniac as the jovial Bobby, and in the strongest moment that both the show and this production offers, Jon-David Randle’s glorious Gator moment and the voices that follow in “Say a Prayer” reaches peak levels, a cacophony of pain and the yearning for something higher.

While the show is driven by Huey’s passion to change the way we consume music, the heroism of these black artists risking their lives in many cases is the piece’s heartbeat. Black music is this country’s soundtrack, with old-school labels such as Motown, Chess and Stax/Volt to the more modern Def Jam and Bad Boy providing avenues that have changed the world.

“Memphis” is a show that allows the music to live in all of us, and assures everyone that no one can ever steal your Rock and Roll.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Playhouse presents “Memphis”
Book and lyrics by David Bryan
Music and lyrics by Joe Dipietro
The Word: A solid and entertaining take on the four-time Tony Award winning musical. Funny, heartbreaking with a soulful soundtrack and strong choreography
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
The Julia Morgan Theater
2640 College Ave., Berkeley, CA 94704
Running time: Two hours, 25 minutes with an intermission
Tickets range from $25 – $44
For tickets, call (510) 845-8542 x351 or visit berkeleyplayhouse.org .

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