REVIEW: Cast elevates Arvada Center’s “Memphis” far beyond Broadway script

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Prepare to be surprised.

Memphis opened Tuesday night as the metro fall theater season’s first sensation, not because it’s a stellar show, but because the Arvada Center cast and company have turned it into one.

The Arvada production is the first big regional stab at the bewildering Broadway Tony winner. Director Rod Lansberry’s production of Memphis delivers a knock-out winner, despite the entire company having to fight the musical’s foibles all the way to curtain call.

The show focuses on the budding civil rights and music scene in Memphis during the early 1950s. It’s based on legendary radio DJ Dewey Phillips, who was credited with helping bring nascent R&B out of underground black clubs and into the musical mainstream. But play creators Joe DiPietro (author of Denver’s favorite play ever, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) and musician David Bryan, of Bon Jovi, seemed to never decide what the show is supposed to be. Part comedy, part morality play and all Broadway fawn, Memphis starts to feel like a theatrical stew made from Hairspray, Dream Girls, Romeo and Juliet, Westside Story and The Taffetas.

Even though the audience is wowed from the beginning by a cast that just can’t seem to do anything less than astonishing, the sense of caricature and cliche hovers over the show as  the cast unrolls the plot and characters. Whites hate and abuse blacks. Blacks hate and distrust whites. A new generation might move past it all. Music is a magical thing able to cure even racism. White people can’t dance. Black people can show them how. The musical’s message about the heinous treatment of blacks in the segregated South comes off as dated in a world where racism still exists, but in a much more insidious way.

By the time Felicia — a young, black singer anxious to break out of Memphis’ Beale Street underground bar scene and a city thick with violent racists — launches the clunker about how to tell when a man is lying? “He opens his mouth,” the show starts to list.

Surprise. After a roller coaster ride of jaw-dropping songs, razor-sharp dance scenes and a gratuitous, lonely N-bomb lobbed into the dark, the cast and company right the show and start wringing real emotions out of the audience.

About halfway through the first act it becomes clear that the cast could create a runaway smash hit with a stage version of Yentl. The principles are so good they take turns stealing the show. The numbers are so polished and the singing so tight, they all get a turn to do just that.  Aisha Jackson, a University of Northern Colorado grad and local rising star, delivers a legendary performance as Felicia. Likewise, Jim Hogan as Huey, an illiterate, white idler who turns his love of R&B and Felicia into a radio DJ career, breathes charming life and palpable depth into what might otherwise have been just a cartoon. As amazing as these two leads are, supporting cast and singers snatch the show during solos. Mathenee Treco, as Bobby, sings, dances and kicks his way through a dizzying scene that audiences will talk about for years. Vincent Smith, as Gator, turns what could have been a predictable stunt into one of the show’s stellar and most surprising scenes. But Melissa Swift-Sawyer as Huey’s tight-lipped, racist mama, runs a flawless musical freight train right through the cheering audience.

What the play’s creators struggled to produce, the Arvada Center cast and company deliver with all the awe of a NASA moon landing. In each scene, rather than stretching themselves to their limits, the cast pushes past the limitations of the play to deliver all the audience can take.

Go get surprised and delighted by this production of Memphis.

four out of five stars

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Memphis, directed by Rod A. Lansberry, runs at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities through Sept. 28. Tickets are $53-$73 with shows most nights and some matinees.

Call 720-898-7200 or visit ArvadaCenter.org.