By PAM HARBAUGH
VERO BEACH, FL — A compelling story, electrifying dance and soul-stirring music come together in a the highly theatrical, professional production of the musical “Memphis,” on stage now at Riverside Theatre.
The storied success of this show begins with its concept – present a story rife with universal themes (the inevitability of social change) and layer into it great music evocative of Motown’s golden era (think Temptations, Chuck Berry, The Supremes).
Then, get the right talent: writer/lyricist Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) and composer/lyricist David Bryan (Bon Jovi keyboardist). Together, they tell the story of 1950s Memphis radio DJ Huey Calhoun (loosely based on life of real DJ Dewey Phillips) who defies his repressive white upbringing and falls in love with black R & B and a woman who sings it.
This show at Riverside Theatre, a co-production with Philadelphia’s legendary Walnut Street Theatre, uses sensational talent, both onstage and behind the scenes.
Easily commanding the stage, Christopher Sutton endears in his heartfelt portrayal of Huey Calhoun, a stubborn man you want to hug at one point and then shake some sense into him the next. Kimber Sprawl sizzles as Felicia, the singer who wins Huey’s love and delivers a bit of foreshadowing in the soul number “Someday.”
Other standouts include Philip Michael Baskerville as Delary, Felicia’s protective brother; Nichalas Parker as loveable Bobby; Travis Keith Battle as Gaitor; and Huey’s mother, Mary Martello. These four come this close to stealing the show in their big number, “Change Don’t Come Easy.”
Director/choreographer Richard Stafford brings a real Broadway flair to this production. It moves at an exciting clip, not even taking a breath at the silky smooth scenic changes in Peter Barbieri’s excellent scenic design. And, a big nod here to stage manager Ingrid Louise Olson, whose name appears last in the program’s list of credits but who makes this thing fly.
Mr. Stafford’s dance pops with energy and thematic layers, literally integrating the styles of white and black dancers in one number.
Mr. Barbieri uses a bridge as visual metaphor both in black and white photos warming the curtain before the show and in the proscenium and girders used in other scenic units.
It may not be especially subtle but nothing about this show is. Moreover, it is effective and well used considering the theme of music bridging two different cultures.
Add to all this, great moment-to-moment backup served by music director Ken Clifton and his band, beautiful lighting design by Jack Mehler and a perfect period costume design by Gail Baldoni,
The story in “Memphis” might be 60 years old, but the theme is as new as today’s headlines – change is going to come. And as shown in Riverside’s terrific production, you’ll applaud that change.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Memphis” runs through April 26 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Dive, Vero Beach. Curtain is at various times throughout the week. Tickets start at $35. Call 772-231-6990 or visit www.RiversideTheatre.com.