Well, hockadoo! The John W. Engeman Theater was full of soul last Saturday night, engaging theatergoers with a sizzling production of “Memphis” that raised the roof and culminated with a five-minute standing ovation.
Directed by Igor Goldin (“West Side Story” and “Evita”) and choreographed by Antoniette DiPietropolo, the rock ‘n’ roll musical is loosely based on the life of “Daddy-O” Dewey Philips, a Memphis disc jockey who dared to play the music of black artists in the late 1950s, when segregation was still the norm in the South. With book and lyrics by Joe Dipietro and original music and lyrics by David Bryan — a member of rock band Bon Jovi — the production ran on Broadway from 2009 to 2012 and won four Tony Awards, including best musical in 2010.
The story follows Huey Calhoun, who, in his quest to find the sounds of early rock ‘n’ roll, finds himself in a black nightclub on the seedy side of town. Owned by Delray, the club features his sister Felicia, a black singer with whom Huey quickly falls in love and vows to get on the radio so the world can hear the music that Delray says is “just Negro blues sped up.”
Carson Higgins is the lead as Huey, a role he has played in the past and has by now perfected. Higgins makes Huey likable and endearing and draws the audience in from the beginning. An incredible actor and singer, Higgins’ rendition of “Memphis Lives in Me” is unforgettable.
Breanna Bartley is perfectly cast as Felicia. With a smooth singing voice, she shines in the musical numbers, especially in “Someday” and “Colored Woman.”
The entire supporting cast is wonderful, with powerful voices and the moves to match. Standouts include Kathryn Markey as Huey’s sassy mother Gladys; C. Mingo Long as Delray; and Jarred Bedgood as Gator, who doesn’t speak or sing until the end of Act I but then treats the audience to a moving rendition of “Say a Prayer.”
Hidden from view but not to be overlooked is the six-piece powerhouse band. Musical Director James Olmstead, who doubles on keyboard, returns to the Engeman to lead a talented group of musicians, including Josh Endlich on percussion, Russ Brown on bass, Joe Boardman on trumpet, Brian Schatz on reeds and Douglas Baldwin on guitar, all playing Bryan and Dipietro’s rousing score.
Set design is handled neatly by D.T. Willis and works well, utilizing sliding panels and a second level to tell the story, and the gorgeous period costumes by Tristan Raines are spot-on, pulling the production together successfully. Don’t miss this wonderful high-energy production, a perfect ending to a night out on the town.
The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present “Memphis” through May 8. Show includes some adult language and staged violence. Running time is 2.5 hours, including one 15-minute intermission. Free valet parking. Tickets are $74 on Saturday evenings and $69 for all other performances, and may be purchased by calling 631-261-2900 or by visiting www.engemantheater.com.