You’ll want to jump up, join ‘Memphis’ cast
That was the takeaway from our visit to a rehearsal for County Players’ production of this recent Broadway musical, with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, and music and lyrics by David Bryan. With a huge, exuberant cast of 31 culled from much of the Hudson Valley, all on stage dancing, singing, acting and moving scenery together, this production really puts the “community” back in community theater. Director Anna Marie Paolercio told us she favors musicals that are really about something, and “Memphis” is about something.
First of all, it’s about Memphis, Tennessee in 1951, when the color barriers were up in full force and a kiss between people of two different races was illegal. And it’s about a true moment in our American heritage, when color boundaries began to crumble. Huey Calhoun, a poor white kid obsessed with the music emanating from the black clubs on Beale Street, wanders into DelRay’s Juke Joint and changes history. The music he hears is “the music of his soul” and he vows to get it out there to the rest of the world. Or at least the rest of the city. He goes back to his job in a store, where Perry Como “is putting me in a Perry Coma” and takes over the music department, putting on a 45 of the early R&B that birthed rock ’n’ roll. The store goes wild, he sells 29 “race records” in the space of a song, and he’s promptly fired.
Huey Calhoun was a real person, and he found his way onto a white station “in the middle of the dial,” playing music, largely from the underground black music scene, that ultimately saved the station financially. The “black” music Calhoun played challenged the class and race stereotypes that divided people through ignorance and fear. Calhoun created a radio persona for himself reminiscent of Wolfman Jack, inventing words —“Hock-a-doo!” (“Is that dirty?” white people ask when they hear it) and riffing wild, improvisational on-air radio commercials for sponsors because he couldn’t read the copy.
His only downfall: falling in love with the black singer whose career he launched. Neither “side” of the race barrier supports their relationship: one side harbors too much fear and prejudice, the other carries the physical scars and painful memories of violent beatings and lynchings.
The Hudson Valley rarely rocks out like this onstage, and Paolercio held numerous auditions to find the extraordinary African-American actors and singers to balance the cast for the show. Up front and incredible is Poughquag native Jasha Woodall, playing the rising singing star, Felicia Farrell. As the engine that makes the story percolate, Jarek Zabczynski plays Calhoun with fervor, hyper glee and sexy charm.
Woodall said the Act 1 finale, “Say a Prayer,” is her favorite song in the show: “If you pray that change is coming/what you pray comes true.” Sung by the whole cast, it has emotional heft and impact even in rehearsal, with just a piano accompaniment, and no costumes or lights. Zabczynski said his favorite song is his last, “Memphis Lives in Me,” a song Huey sings at the end of the show, about being reborn when you have nothing left to lose.
“This musical is important for the time we’re in now,” Zabczynski told us. “In rehearsal, I feel like part of a family. We’ve been talking about everything here, some hard things, too, and no one gets offended. But it angers me when I have to leave and go back out to a world where that isn’t necessarily happening. Why can’t the rest of the world be like us here in this theater? What the world could be is taking place right here.”
Musically directed by another county treasure, Joel Flowers, and choreographed by Gabriela Morris, a sophomore at Marist College, the show moves and pops with the exuberance of the ’50s, with a touch of the present thrown in for good measure: the work here is so jubilant you want to jump up and join them.
This musical is about two people who crossed the divide between races and found love and joy in each other, and in the community and the music they shared; it is also about the violence they encountered along the way. It comments on a time in our country not so long ago when people took a chance on change, as Sam Cooke noted in his monumental classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a song referenced often by the lyrics and music of this show. And the Hudson Valley now gets to be a part of what Zabczynski thinks of as his family
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Get out and see this important, joyous, inspiring and rocking show.
Hudson Valley residents Darrah Cloud and David Simpatico are the co-directors of Half Moon Writers, the development wing of the Half Moon Theatre in Poughkeepsie. She is an award-winning playwright and professor at Goddard College and Vassar College. He is an award-winning playwright/librettist, who also writes, directs, edits and stars in “Zombie Hideaway,” a webisodic series on his YouTube Channel, “Noiseball David Simpatico.” Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go . . .
What: County Players’ production of “Memphis,” by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan
When: 8 p.m., May 6-7, May 13-14, May 20-21; 2 p.m., May 15, May 22
Where: County Players Falls Theatre, 2681 W. Main St., Wappingers Falls
Tickets: $22, adult; $19, seniors/children under 12
Information: Call the box office at 845-298-1491; visit www.countyplayers.org