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'Memphis' explores 1950's music, discrimination


The cast of "Memphis," the musical that celebrates a white guy's obsession with rhythm and blues in the 1950s, brought hard-driving rhythms and hip dance moves to Hays on Wednesday evening. The musical was the final installment of a diverse selection of 2013-14 Encore series events.

A fitting finale for the Encore season, it was easy to see from the unrestrained applause of the audience, that "Memphis" was a hit for Hays.

Based on the book by Joe DiPietro, "Memphis" opens in a smoky, underground blues bar, where Huey Calhoun, (Joey Elrose) discovers African-American music playing beneath his feet. There, he meets Felicia Farrell (Jasmin Richardson), and her lush, bluesy voice entices him to open up to a whole new world of music appreciation.

Colorful sets, wherein musicians, vocalists and dancers seemed miraculously to appear, added dimension to the performance and gave the impression the story line was being illustrated in real time. And seeing and hearing the orchestra from the stage instead of a pit helped seal the deal, bringing the robust musical arrangements to life.

Themes of racial tension and intolerance were woven through the production, as the awkwardly self-aware Calhoun brought "race" music to a radio show audience. Elrose's portrayal of the up-and-coming disc jockey was energetic as he rolled with the punches and kept the mood generally light.

Calhoun, irresistibly attracted to Felicia, struggles from the opening scene through the entire show to convince her a biracial couple can be accepted in Memphis. But violence erupts on stage when Calhoun's love for Farrell is discovered by a group of thugs.

With the opening of act two, a new mood prevails, and Calhoun launches an R&B television show.

Bringing incredible energy and grace to the performance, Bobby, (Jerrial Young) danced and hand-springed his way to an outrageously fun rendition of "Big Love" for a newly found TV audience.

Commanding the stage, Richardson's soulful voice was the high point of the show. Her undeniable star quality was nothing short of "fantastical," to use one of Calhoun's original words.

Dawne Leiker is a frequent contributor to The Hays Daily News.