Rep season's regional premiere visits Memphis

Posted: September 4, 2014 at 2:05 a.m.

Kyron Turner, Gregory Omar Osborne and James Roberts star in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of Memphis the Musical.

Memphis the Musical opens the 2014-2015 season at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre this weekend and the Tony Award-winning play will also have its regional premiere in Little Rock.

The show's music and lyrics were written by David Bryan, keyboardist in rock band Bon Jovi, and Joe DiPietro wrote the book and lyrics. The play opened on Broadway in 2009 and in 2010, it won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score and Best Orchestration.

Memphis the Musical

7 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 28, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Sixth and Main streets, Little Rock

Preview performance: 7 p.m. today with pre-show director’s talk from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m.

Tickets: $40-$55; $30 for students

terpreted performance for the hearing impaired: Wednesday (Sept. 10 only)

(501) 378-0405

"The show is loosely based on the life of Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who was one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s," says Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, director and choreographer of the Rep production. An associate professor of performing arts at Elon University in North Carolina, she has previously choreographed five plays at the Rep: Evita, The Full Monty, A Chorus Line, My Fair Lady and Tommy (which she also directed).

Phillips became notorious for his then-unheard-of fast-talking approach to his DJ job, often singing along with the records, interrupting them and cutting them short, interjecting sponsors' names and random observations, such as "I got a letter from Grandma today."

"It's such an interesting story," Kurdziel-Formato says. "Mr. Phillips of Sun Records, who was no relation to Dewey, and Elvis Presley, they both helped Dewey's family out, monetarily. Elvis flew him to Hollywood and was quite a supporter of his.

"I saw the show on Broadway and was struck by how much they captured the era, and the music is all original. It's all based in the R&B, gospel and early rock 'n' roll genres of music."

In Memphis the Musical, Huey, the character based on Dewey Phillips, begins a risky relationship with Felicia, a young black woman, in the days of Southern segregation.

"Huey has a severe passion for soul music and literally feels it in his soul," says Brent DiRoma, who plays the character. "The music that he loves ends up bringing him to the girl of his dreams, and from there it spirals into a lovely -- sometimes ugly -- whirlwind of getting to know himself and his surroundings. His naivete gets in his way."

Huey becomes a hugely successful radio personality who thinks he can transcend racial boundaries of the time.

"He hears a voice and is drawn to the sound," says Jasmin Richardson, who plays Felicia, the woman to whom Huey is attracted. "I would describe her as a complete dreamer, and he creates the opportunity and the open door and she walks through it, and they fall in love. She is not intimidated by the fact that he is a white man. He is so infatuated with the music and the possibilities of what the music can do."

Richardson also had the role of Felicia on the show's recent national tour.

Another character in the play comes between the couple.

"I play the owner of the nightclub where Huey comes in to hear the music," says Tony Perry, who plays Delray, the older brother of Felicia. "He is from an earlier era, in a time of more racial trouble. He's formed this community in this club, called Underground, where he keeps this whole world hidden from the mainstream culture. Then Huey comes into his life and changes it."

And then there are the characters who are there because they have newly discovered the music.

"I play a young girl introduced to this music by Huey's radio program, and she defies her family to go and listen to it at the black church and is the only little white girl there," adds Katie Emerson, a member of the ensemble, who also has the roles of Teen Girl 1 and Double Dutch Girl. Emerson, who grew up in Jonesboro, has had roles in five shows at the Rep, including A Christmas Carol, and is now working in New York. "I love every bit of it and I'm a rebel in my own group."

The director (who was one of Emerson's professors at Elon) points out parallels between the play and the classic story that also comes to mind.

"There are elements of Romeo and Juliet in this, as there are in any love story where people come from two completely different backgrounds," Kurdziel-Formato says. "And with what was recently going on in Ferguson, Mo., these things are still resonating."

Others in the cast include Gregory L. Williams as Gator, Arthur Ross as Bobby, Bill Newhall as Mr. Simmons and Ann-Ngaire Martin as Gladys. Members of the ensemble with additional roles are Courtney Blackmun, Michele May Clark, Ryan Farnsworth, Tatiana H. Green, DeCarl Jones, Marisa Kirby, Chris McNiff, Gregory Omar Osborne, Shaun Repetto, James Roberts, Kyron Turner and Laura Leigh Turner. Additional cast members with multiple roles are Daniel McDonald and J Nycole Ralph.

There will be a panel discussion at noon today in Sturgis Hall at the Clinton Presidential Center, with Rep Producing Artistic Director Bob Hupp, the cast members, Rep creative team members and the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. See or for more information. Call (501) 683-5239 to reserve seating.

On Sept. 13, after the performance, members of the cast will join audience members for drinks in Foster's, the Rep's lounge.

On Sept. 18 from 5 to 7 p.m., there will be a "Girls' Night Out With Beehive," a Little Rock boutique. There will be a complimentary champagne pour from 5 to 6 and a cash bar from 6 to 7.

On Sept. 19, musician Christopher Key Cash will perform from 6 to 7 p.m. in Foster's.

On Sept. 22 at 7 p.m., local band Velvet Kente Arkestra will perform music from 1950s Memphis to present times. (The play will not, however, follow the performance.)

And while the play is only loosely based on the life of Dewey Phillips, the Memphis Archives released a CD, Dewey Phillips: Red Hot & Blue -- Live Radio Broadcasts From 1952-1964. Liner notes explain that Phillips died at 42 in bed at his mother's house, after "a 10-year odyssey during which he bounced from one radio station to another in Memphis and Little Rock."

Weekend on 09/04/2014