Nancy Sasso Janis
‘Memphis’ is a musical with music and lyrics by David Bryan and a book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro. The show ran on Broadway from 2009 to 2012 and won four Tony Awards in 2010, including the award for Best Musical. It is loosely based on a Memphis disc jockey named Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs that played black music on the radio in the 1950s and it certainly examines race relations at the time. At times tense and even a bit uncomfortable, it is perfectly balanced with joyful dancing, lots of humor, one beautiful song after another, and in the case of this Landmark production at the Thomaston Opera House, a stellar cast giving it their all. For all of these reasons, this is a show not to be missed.
On opening night, Landmark Community Theatre held a reception to honor one of their long time volunteers, the wonderful actress and director Donna Storms. A large contingent of her theatre friends sat around her as Jeffrey Dunn introduced a videotaped tribute that was shown before the show began. Another celebrity in the house was Broadway actress Tracee Beazer Barrett originally from Waterbury who appeared in ‘Hairspray,’ ‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ and was a “Someday” backup singer in the original cast of ‘Memphis’ and an understudy for the lead role of Felicia. Seated behind me with members of her family, the actress enjoyed this production as much as the rest of the opening night audience.
Foster Evans Reese really wanted to bring this piece to the TOH stage and served as director and choreographer. His clear vision of what ‘Memphis’ should be is evident in every step and every word of the actors in the amazing cast that he assembled. The fact that he had cameo appearances as a Baptist minister and a television camera operator allowed him to watch their performances up close and personal. Aaron Bunel got the thrilling vocal performances out of this cast as the music director and he also directed the stellar onstage orchestra. The solos were just as great as the production numbers and at intermission I felt that I did not want the show to end.
Felicia was played by Connecticut newcomer Samantha Rae Bass in her Landmark debut. This young lady has the vocal chops required for this role of a powerhouse singer and an acting ability to match. Congratulations to this actress on hitting the local stage in a big way. Dan Beaudoin brought so much depth to the role of the DJ Huey that I was mesmerized by his performance. He never faltered in the way the character should speak and move, and his vocal performance could not have been better. For him, playing Huey was a dream come true and it showed.
Moses Beckett did not speak in the role of Gator until the end of the first act, but this gifted actor let the audience know what his character was thinking without a word. Of course his performance of “Say A Prayer” with the clubgoers brought down the house immediately before the intermission. I was glad to see that the character had a few more lines, lyrics and dance moves in the second act where this young man was able to put his talent to work. Overall, the choreography by Mr. Reese was energetic and impressive enough to remind me a little of the guys in ‘West Side Story.’
Two other standouts were Mensah Robinson in his TOH debut and Penelope Kokines Sanborn as Huey’s mother Gladys. Mr. Robinson traveled from Danbury to take on the role of Felicia’s protective brother Delray and gave us chills during all his heartfelt musical numbers. Ms. Sanborn made the most of the humor in the role of Huey’s mother and had her turn as a star in “Change Don’t Come Easy.”
The outstanding ensemble included Ashley Almodovar, Sasha Brown, Katie Brunetto (giving it her all,) Alyssa Fontana Bunel (Landmark debut,) Jasmine Clemons, Shelby Christopher Davis, Robert Hagedorn, Mark-Anthony Hamblin, Rodney K., Laureen Monge, Justin Normandin, Ruben Soto and Chelsea Winborne. St. Paul Catholic HS senior Dana Wilton was simply amazing in the featured role of The Teenage Girl. Diwan Keno Glass played the role of janitor turned tv show host Bobby, a role originated on Broadway by James Monroe Iglehart, currently playing Genie in Disney’s ‘Aladdin.’
John Chenkus was believable as Mr. Collins and Gordon Grant. Kyrell Clemons wailed as Wailin Joe. Be Black Trio was comprised of Mr. Clemons, Kyle Davis, and Mr. Hamblin. Felicia’s backup singers included Brittany Fitzpatrick, Elizabeth Bernard, Karen Robinson and Ms. Brown. Lou Guertin was impressive as bewildered station owner Mr. Simmons and Patricia Paganucci had a walk on as a white mother.
The set was designed by Kate K. Luurtsema and it worked well. Period costumes designed by Ms. Luurtsema and Barbara Piscopo were also very well done. A valiant attempt to project the black and white television camera feed on a screen house right was well-intentioned but grainy and a bit of a distraction in my opinion; I just watched the cast onstage.
After the curtain call had ended, I remained in order to congratulate members of the cast and production team on their amazing accomplishment. While waiting for the actors to change out of their costumes, I discussed specifics with community theatre veteran Lyle Ressler. I always enjoy talking theatre with Mr. Ressler, but it is a special treat when I am able to collect my thoughts with him immediately after a performance. My reviews are always better as a result. When the ‘Memphis’ performers reentered the stately Opera House in their street clothes, many were greeted with applause from well-wishers and it was well-deserved.
Do not miss this outstanding production that runs through October 4.
The third musical of Landmark’s 2015 Season features the sensuous, soulful sound of rhythm 'n' blues, MEMPHIS, showing September 19, 25, 26, October 2, 3 @ 8pm and September 20, 27, October 4 @ 2pm. In 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, the soul of a new era is dawning as the first incredible sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and gospel emerge. Falling in love with a beautiful club singer, one young man’s vision to bring her voice and her music out of the clubs and onto the airwaves of America will fly in the face of cultural divides and spark a music revolution that will shake the world. Tickets: Adults $24.00 Seniors & Students $20.00