Review: "Memphis" at Cape Fear Theatre Arts

Skip Maloney

In all of the years that I have been performing, producing and directing community theater, in various geographical areas in the US, I have never been part of such a wildly and broadly talented group of theater folk than those I've encountered here in the Port City of Wilmington, NC. There are at least a half dozen different theater companies, two local playwright organizations, and one of the finest old-school theater spaces you're likely to find anywhere - Thalian Hall, originally built in the 19th century, and now, permanently encased in a stone and steel local government building that houses the Mayor and City Council. Nice juxtaposition, that;  government offices and a recently-renovated, top-notch,  historic theater space.

            Some of this available talent can be traced to the film community that's engaged with the Screen Gems studio here in town, where Iron Man 3 was filmed. Or it might just be the proximity of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and its theater program, which shares directors and performers. Or Cape Fear Community College, or Cape Fear Academy. Or maybe it's just the water here in Wilmington.

            Among the many local groups is one known as Cape Fear Theater Arts, LLC (formerly known as City Stage). Normally, they produce their shows in another downtown building that's home to another historic theater space (also known as City Stage). That space, however, is five flights up, and generally (unless you're physically ambitious and fit) requires the use of a seriously rickety elevator that literally scares the hell out of people. Not surprisingly, the state of affairs, viz a viz, that elevator, has cut into attendance figures, and so, for a recent, now-closed production of Memphis, Cape Fear Theater Arts moved west a couple of blocks to utilize Thalian Hall.

            It should be noted here, in full disclosure mode, that I work with these people all the time. The director, Justin Smith, cast me in a production of Raney for a dinner theater company operating out of its own private facility called TheaterNOW. The lead role of Huey Calhoun in this production of Memphiswas portrayed by Paul Teal, who played Huck Finn in another local group's production of Big River, in which I played his father, Pap. Khawon Porter, who played Gator, the initially non-speaking bartender at Delray's, was Jim in the same production. A lot of the younger ensemble members were part of that production and an earlier production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

All that said, this production of Memphis was proof-positive of an earlier assertion of mine that community theater productions can match Broadway productions, given a strong enough talent pool, both on- and off-stage, at the helm. Having actually seen this production on Broadway, and been blown away by it, I'm happy to report that I was blown away a second time; this time, as it turned out, from the front row.

            My personal background in this community will generally keep my fingers away from a keyboard when it comes to reviews. I might be willing to face some of these friends as a director, and point out some of their failings, but to do so in a public forum would be social suicide for me. I'd be less concerned about my own artistic future in the community, and more concerned about offending friends, however well-intentioned and accurate my observations and criticisms of a particular production might be. However, I have no qualms about praising them to the high heavens when they deliver a production that earns it.

Memphis here in Wilmington earned it.

            For the second time in little less than a year, I found myself witnessing a Wilmington community theater production that rivaled a Broadway production that I had seen previously. Not just a good production, but a great production that delivered all of the emotional impact and sharp-edged professionalism that I expect when I'm seated in a Broadway house. Both of the productions were produced by Cape Fear Theater Arts, LLC and were directed by Justin Smith, with musical direction by Chiaki Ito. Both featured Paul Teal in a lead role. The previous production was Hair, which I had seen in its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston in the late 1960s, and most recently (2009) in a revival that won the Tony award for Best Revival.

            The talent on stage for this production of Memphis was top notch. Not a missed note, dance step, or off-point moment to be found anywhere. As a performer/director myself, I am sometimes annoyingly aware of the slightest slips. If my eyes wander around the stage, as they're likely to do, at any given point in time, and I happen to notice a performer who's not paying attention, or, for that matter, paying too much attention to something like his/her dance steps, it rings an "Uh, oh" bell that I can't avoid hearing. These kinds of moments sit at the knife-edge of what is and is not professional when it comes to theater. I did not find a single performer who let up on the energy and focus of their stage performance for as much as a second.

            Paul Teal as Huey Calhoun (loosely based on Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips) was letter-perfect. When you know someone personally, it can often take a while for you, as an audience member, to separate the character you're watching perform, from the person you know. I pretty much forgot who this person really was from the moment he opened his mouth, so immersed as he was, in the portrayal. The same could be said for Barbara Mootoo, who played Felicia Farrell, Nygel Deville Robinson in the role of Delray (Felicia's brother), Khawon's portrayal of Gator, and Jerrial Young as Bobby, whose "Big Love" number was a classic show-stopper.

            Credit Justin Smith, Chiaki Ito and choreographer Elissa Edwards with masterful control of their individual areas of responsibility and expertise. The lighting design of Aaron Willings played its part, too, as did the production stage managing work of Dallas LaFon, who's normally in the lighting design chair, and recognized when he's in that chair, as one of the city's theatrical treasures. I had an issue or two with the sets by Terry Collins. Though functional and appropriate, these sets had a few rough edges. The radio station set lacked that sharp professional edge, and some of the paint on other set pieces looked as though it had been applied haphazardly. There's a scene that closes Act I that requires a member of the cast to carry Felicia Farrell up a set of stairs to exit Delray's bar. It was a scary few moments that saw the upper level platform shake a little as the performers reached it. It had a way of disconnecting us from the emotional context of the theatrical moment, and attached us, instead,  to a real-life concern about the actress's health and well-being as she and the man carrying her attempted what should have been a hasty retreat.

            Wilmington has just begun to import Broadway touring shows into a new theater space downtown; The Cape Fear Community College Humanities and Fine Arts Center, which includes a state-of-the-art auditorium. A professional touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will be in town for a single day in February.  This form of trucked-in professional production should increase over time, offering citizens of the community a much-needed opportunity to witness professional productions.  They know, though, that members of their own community can offer meticulously rendered and equally entertaining productions; a surfeit of riches, so to speak.

            So come on down, if you've a mind to. Join us at either of our two beaches (Wrightsville and Carolina). Check local calendars when you get here, and look for anything being produced. You're likely not to be disappointed.


Photo: From left, Khawon Porter, Nygel Robinson, Jerrial Young, Barbara Mootoo and Paul Teal and star in “Memphis.” Photo by Erik J. Maasch, courtesy of Cape Fear Theatre Arts