In 1950, the Pomeran siblings kicked out Daisy, the family cow, from their Bellport barn and The Gateway Playhouse staged its first production, Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Within a decade after its stalls were transformed into dressing rooms and its haylofts into balconies, the property was known as a leading summer stock theater and a breeding ground for top-level talent.
Now in its 69th season, the Gateway continues bringing Broadway favorites to Long Island with “Memphis,” the Tony Award-winning musical about fame and forbidden love, rock and roll and race relations, in 1950s Tennessee.
With a score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, creative dance numbers and a moving love story, “it’s the very essence of a Broadway musical,” says Paul Allen, the Gateway’s artistic director and grandson of its founder, Harry Pomeran.
That essence has been transported to the Suffolk County theater. “We have a trailer full of the actual costumes that were used on the Broadway national tour,” Allen says. The show’s Broadway links also include a number of its actors. Moeisha McGill plays Felicia Farrell, an aspiring songstress who catches the ear and heart of progressive DJ Huey Calhoun while performing in the city’s seedy underground clubs. The actress has appeared on Broadway in “Motown,” “Rent” and “Mamma Mia!”
Josh Canfield, also a Broadway veteran (“Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” “Doctor Zhivago”), takes on the lead character loosely based on “Daddy-O” Dewey Phillips, a white radio personality who embraced black music in the segregated South. Audiences may recognize Canfield more, however, from the “San Juan del Sur” edition of the reality TV series “Survivor” in 2014. (He was voted off the island on day 21.)
Also hailing from Broadway is David Ruttura, currently the associate director of “School of Rock” at Manhattan’s Winter Garden Theatre and on tour. “David has Long Island roots. He was an acting student and helped backstage at the Gateway,” recalls Allen. “Now, he is making his comeback to the theater as director.”
At the heart of “Memphis,” according to Allen, is the strong role music plays in its telling — both as a vehicle through which to drive the plot forward and as a mechanism for cultural change.
“The ’50s and ’60s tend to get glamorized,” he says. “ ‘Memphis’ shows more of the gut of that period. The challenges that the characters face help paved the way for today’s entertainers — white, black, Hispanic — to express their talent and rise to success. Yes, we still have problems, but nothing compared to how far we’ve come.”
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Friday and Wednesday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday and 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday, through July 21, Gateway Playhouse, 215 S. Country Rd, Bellport
INFO $59-$89; 631-286-1133, thegateway.org