When the mercury’s riding high and the days are at their longest, summer is in full swing. And with that comes season-closing musicals at various venues across town. At the beaches, Players By The Sea finds the high note to go out on for their 50th season, and it’s the Tony-award-winning musical Memphis, continuing its run July 28th – 30th, August 4th – 6th and 11th – 13th. Beat the heat with a cool serving of rock ‘n’ roll after the break.
Presented by Players and the Lazzara Family Foundation, Memphis (music/lyrics by David Bryan, book/lyrics by Joe DiPietro) follows the journey of Huey (Rodney Holmes), a white, disc jockey wannabe in the South of the 1950s, as he attempts to bring “race music” onto the popular airwaves. His love of blues, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll tunes finds its way to a bar singer with grand ambition, Felicia (Rashawnda Foster), whose voice may very well shatter the prejudice that prevents the soulful music from finding its place on the radio. The musical depicts the couple’s travails through boiling racial discrimination, the side effects of instant fame, and the value of music as both a conduit for human connection and a biography of pain and grievances, alongside a plethora of characters working through their own preconceptions and beliefs.
One thing becomes clear from the very beginning of the opening song and dance number; this is not a typical summer musical production. Guided by the masterful and sensitive direction of Jereme Raickett, Players’ showcasing of Memphis is a ride that could rival any offering from any theme park. Supported by the efforts of music director Meachum Clarke, choreographer J’royce Jata, and assistant director Shauntel Robinson, Raickett assembles a cast and crew that paint every square inch of the stage with passion and fun. That opening number, “Underground,” sets the tone that subsequent numbers consistently uphold and reinforce. It’s a high-energy tone that is equal parts playful and sensual, confident and chaotic, giving the large ensemble plenty of space to explore their individual characters within the music and the movement. Even during less intense numbers, there is still this familiar undercurrent that weaves its influence over the audience, keeping feet tapping and eyes attentive.
At the center of all this is Holmes and Foster, who find the perfect type of intimacy for a couple dancing and singing along the brink of societal calamity. These two display the humanity within the spectacle, often through Holmes’s ability to find self-deprecating humor and modest gravitas in the same moment, as well as Foster’s fine-tuned touches that tap into sweetness, sass, and strength for a recipe that never falters. Whether they’re flirting or fighting, the chemistry between these two stitches together every number that features their dual presence.
Big voices and fancy feet are expected in musicals, but it’s the acting chops that keep the audience captivated beyond all the high notes and impressive cardio. The soul-crossed lovers are supported by a number of fellow performances. Milton Threadcraft III as Delray, bar owner and Felicia’s protective brother, uses his physicality to assert alpha male qualities, such as in “She’s My Sister,” but then he finds the nuance in peeling back into rare vulnerability. His scenes with Holmes and Foster are always charged and unpredictable. Gloria Ware, as Huey’s mother Gladys, plays a tired but strong-willed demeanor, until she lets loose in “Change Don’t Come Easy” and asserts her voice and a new perspective. Sam Brown’s Bobby involves a similar arc, and his number “Big Love” rewards the audience with his explosive new level of confidence that stands as one of the catchier moments. Brandon Hines plays the silent and stoic Gator, but it’s the final number of Act One that allows him to command all the empathy and attention in the room with “Say a Prayer,” expressing so much through a character who is mostly complacent beforehand. Joseph Stearman provides plenty of levity and honesty as station owner Mr. Simmons, who’s found his moneymaker in newly approved DJ Huey. David Sacks and Willie Beaton II pop in to sing as Perry Como and Wailin’ Joe respectively, then join Brian Johnson’s talent agent Gordon Grant, Allen Morton’s storeowner Mr. Collins, and Sherry Rosen’s store worker Clara, in keeping things compelling while also easing into multiple character roles to add convincing texture to Huey and Felicia’s world.
The production especially benefits from an energetic and seamless ensemble comprised of Arden Trusty, Arielle Bryant, Bertha Jones, Carol Hardern, Chad Krug, Clayton Ridley, Eric Yarham, Jamil Abdur-Rahman, Jennifer Johnson, Jennifer O'Brien, Kathryn Seymore, LaTara Osorio, Linzy Lauren, Natasha Anderson, Tamia Brinkley, Tina Wilson, Tre Ventriglio, and Winter Hughes. There is much joy in witnessing these actors find moments on stage outside of the main action or focus, and they maintain the reality of the world throughout the more dramatic moments. Meachum gives them plenty to play with vocally and cohesively, while Jata enables his dancers to reveal personality through the movements. The marvelous band of Anthony Felton, Alex Hernandez, Greg Balut, David Ott, R. Tyler Bechtle, Jaydin Mitchell, and Jewel Johnson keeps the musical moments lively and engaging and adds a real authenticity to their scenes.
The crew truly shines when one takes a finer look at how intricate the production is, with all the different pieces fitting together so smoothly. Stage manager Monique Franklin keeps those practical pieces in place, and Raickett pulls double duty in his usual position as Players’ production manager. The world onstage is beautiful and believeable, composed of scenic design by charge artist Katie Dawson, lighting design by Jim Wiggins, costumes designed by Keisha Burr and assistanted by Hines, sound by Erik Anderson, props by Claire Cimino, set dressing by Cimino and Morton, lights operated by Jennifer Bishop, sound operated by Kris Jackson, spotlight operated by Melanie Brinkley, and deck crew headed by Aaron Harris and assisted by Rachel Jones.
The show is not only an apt choice for a commemorative and varied season of theatre to finish strong with, but it’s also an apropos selection that goes beyond just entertainment, particularly in our current cultural climate. Music is an identity, a means to make a difference and invigorate souls, a way to support unity, perseverance, and equality. Even as the echoes of the past flow through this play and continue to demand attention in the present, this production of Memphis capitalizes on a time when a society needs art in the face of division, unrest, and turmoil. Make sure to catch one of the remaining performances and be a part of one of the best musical experiences Jacksonville has been able to offer.
All photos by Chance Usina and Ramona Ramdeen
Players by the Sea Theatre & The Lazzara Family Foundation Present:
Music & Lyrics by David Bryan
Book & Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
On Our Mainstage
July 22, 23, 28, 29, 30, August 4, 5, 6, 11, 12, 13
Thursday - Saturday Curtain at 8:00pm
General Admission: $23.00
Thursday Nights are Student Nights: 1/2 Price Tix at the Door with a Valid Student I.D.
For Tickets: 904.249.0289 | www.playersbythesea.org