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'Memphis': Breaking color barriers in music and romance

Moeisha McGill as Felicia and Josh Canfield as

Moeisha McGill as Felicia and Josh Canfield as Huey fall in love with each other in "Memphis" at The Gateway Playhouse. Photo Credit: Jeff Bellante

WHAT “Memphis”

WHERE The Gateway Playhouse, 215 S. Country Rd., Bellport, through July 21

INFO From $59, 631-286-1133, thegateway.org

BOTTOM LINE A strong cast overcomes the weaknesses in this story of race and rebellion.

"It ain't your music to take." 

Illiterate white disc jockey Huey Calhoun heard those warnings more than once and in frightening ways, but they did nothing to deter him from playing the R&B and gospel sounds of local black neighborhoods in this story of race and rebellion, told with unflinching detail in "Memphis" at The Gateway Playhouse in Bellport.  

Loosely based on real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, the show ran nearly three years on Broadway. It also won the 2010 Tony Award for best musical despite some critics' complaints that it was uninspired, derivative (many thought "Hairspray" did it better, seven years earlier) and lacked any truly memorable songs even with its fine score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan. 

The Broadway production succeeded in large part because of its talented cast, and that holds true at The Gateway. Director David Ruttura (associate director of "School of Rock" on Broadway) has assembled a group of Broadway and regional regulars that easily overcomes the play's weaknesses, which are what they are.

Josh Canfield is memorable as Huey, a complicated man who learned early on to get by with his fast-talking bluster, eventually parlaying that into a career in radio, then TV, that made him "the most popular man in Memphis." Though he could easily manage it, Canfield by no means carries the show. Moeisha McGill gives a powerful, insightful performance as Felicia Farrell, the black singer who, against all odds, falls for Huey, and their unaccepted relationship gives the show most of its dramatic intensity.

Melvin Abston as Felicia's overly protective brother, Delray, has the smoothest vocals ever as he starts things off with "Underground." And when mute bartender Gator (Horace V. Rogers, playing a man who hadn't spoken since witnessing his father's lynching) finally opens up with "Say a Prayer," well, watch out. Then there's Leslie Alexander, who portrays Huey's overworked, downtrodden mom, until, that is, she lets loose with "Change Don't Come Easy" and blows the roof off the place.

There are uncomfortable moments in "Memphis," to be sure, as it delves (with occasionally tough language) into the painful race relations of the South in the ’50s. When Huey refuses to use white dancers instead of his black regulars to attract a network TV show, he all but seals his doom. And, of course, makes us love him all the more. 

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