Over the past six years, StageArt has fast become one of Melbourne’s leading theatre companies, allowing performers the opportunity to be a part of works that are fresh from Broadway and not necessarily major touring productions in Australia. MEMPHIS won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2010 and is loosely based on the true story of Dewey Phillips, who was one of the first radio DJs to play black music on a white station.
This show is rather eye-opening in content with the storyline highlighting serious issues of racism, segregation and forbidden love in the 1950s. History tells us what happened but seeing these hardships faced by the black community come to life in stage is never pleasing, especially when music is a universal medium. This is Dean Drieberg‘s directorial debut and he really captured the essence of this era with the help of a strong creative team and cast.
Leading man James Elmer as Huey Calhoun, and his leading lady Elandrah Eramiha-Feo as Felicia Farrell are stars and embody everything about the sweet Southern youth of the 50s. Calhoun is a white radio DJ who wants to change the world and Farrell is a black club singer who is ready for her big break. Together, they form a bond that goes against the cultural norm, but just like in 2017; love is love. Vocally, these two are sublime with R&B runs, roaring belts and storytelling that comes from the heart. Their sensitivity to the characters is beautiful as they make you laugh, smile and tear up. While Elmer is a successful musician and presenter already, this is Eramiha-Feo’s time.
I must point out that in a show where there is a distinct black and white cast it is a little unsettling seeing ethnically European actors passed as black Americans. I understand in Australia it is hard to cast shows like this, but not being able to cast a fully black ensemble is almost culturally insensitive to the discriminations black Americans were suffering at the time. This is not to take away from their talent, it’s just that the subject matter is not culturally relevant to their ethnicity and the producers of StageArt should perhaps put on shows that we are able to appropriately cast in Australia. Food for thought!
Choreographer Kirra Sibel has brought an energetic flow to the overall show. Feeding off of Musical Director Nathan Firmin‘s soulful melodies and instrumental accents, the dance has highlighted the era. The dancers showed their excellent technique but also their playfulness in what is a highly dynamic show. If Hairspray ever had a sister musical, Memphis is it! It’s feel-good but makes you think about a time where social injustice was rife. There are parallels that we can sadly draw on in 2017 from this show, but through song and dance we are able to escape the hardships for a moment and have fun!
Images by Jayde Justin
Memphis: The Musical is on at Chapel Off Chapel in Melbourne until October 28th. For tickets and more info, head here.
The reviewer attended the show on October 8th.