The first person to play Elvis on the radio was DJ Dewey Phillips. And in his first interview with the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll he asked what high school he graduated from. The answer was Humes, which in the segregated south meant that Elvis was white. He was safe to listen to.
Presented here by Porchlight Music Theatre and set both in that same era and city is Memphis. Winner of Best Musical in 2010, Memphis is very loosely based on the life of the pioneering Dewey Phillips. Memphis brings to life not only the early stages of rock and roll, but also the racial reality of living in the South circa 1950. Laws at that time restricted not only which fountain to drink out of but also who was safe to kiss. Forgetting either rule could lead to consequences far worse than prison.
Liam Quealy, in the central role of the DJ Huey Calhoun, perfectly captures the manic energy and vulnerability of someone riding a wave bigger than he is ever possible. Calhoun’s love interest (the incredibly talented Aeriel Williams) is a raw talent hoping someday to be a star. She is also African-American and living under the shadow of her protective older brother (Lorenzo Rush Jr. in a very commanding and domineering performance). In a different time and place they might be great. But in 1950s Memphis the options are stark.
Memphis is a big musical, a throwback really, and the Porchlight cast is more than up to the challenge. I mean honestly, there really is no reason that the production cannot move a few blocks south to one of the bigger downtown theaters. The energy level alone warrants a bigger stage. But I am a bit troubled by the script which tells racism through the eyes of a white DJ instead of through the perspective of a budding African American star. There are missed chances aplenty in this set up. But the music and choreography are great. And the performances simply amazing. It all makes for a very entertaining night out.
Bottom line: Memphis is recommended and is currently playing at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts (1016 North Dearborn). Performances are Thursday through Sunday with some Wednesday matinee shows. Tickets can be purchased at PorchlightMusicTheatre or by calling 773-777-9884. Prices range from $33 to $66.