‘Memphis-The Musical’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

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Memphis—The Musical may have won the 2010 Tony on Broadway but it seems made-to-order for Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Here is a show that dazzles with performers rather than spectacle, and reaches across cultural chasms and age gaps with its wonderfully uplifting music and message.

Greg Twomey (Huey Calhoun). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
Greg Twomey (Huey Calhoun). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Simply put: Memphis is ideal for Toby’s theater-in-the-round because any way you look at it, it’s a crowd-pleaser.

After offering shelter with its triple-play escapist haven of Shrek, Spamalot, and The Pirates of Penzance, Toby’s has cleared the deck and returned with a show of substance as well as entertainment value.

Throughout a 35-year producing career, Artistic Producer Toby Orenstein has displayed consummate showmanship with her programming decisions. Here she is also sharing directorial duties — and all the glory — with Lawrence B. Munsey.

Memphis (book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music and lyrics by David Bryan) tells a story that we baby-boomers remember like our first crush. It’s about the cultural tsunami that swept the Eisenhower era when kids awoke to the new sounds of rhythm and blues on their radios. Perhaps, in essence, what they discovered was, as one of the songs here puts it, “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night.”

The era, its inertias and its prejudices, are all embodied in the composite history of a Tennessee ne’er-do-well named Huey Calhoun. He may be a poor white underachiever to the Memphis mainstream, but he hears the “Music Of My Soul,” as he soulfully wails to the clientele of an all-black dancehall dive.

Huey Calhoun is a type of hero peculiar to American folk mythology — the slacker-rebel whose refusal to bow to social norms slashes through the underbrush of fear, leaving a path to a better world. He is not a saint, and in Memphis he is a bit of a braggart and a promoter, to boot. But he is also a big romantic child, a ninth-grade dropout, and someone whose every fiber is committed to ending the irrationality of racial separatism.

Tall and lanky Greg Twomey makes Huey distinctly his own here, sauntering down the stairs into Delray’s underground blues club like a child on Christmas morning, afraid only that he might not get everything he wished for.

Twomey projects the kind of innocence that disarms the “cracker” expectations of the patrons, and even impresses the resident level-headed blues diva, Felicia. When it’s his turn in the spotlight, Twomey sells the big notes and passions of songs like “Make Me Stronger” and “Memphis Lives in Me” without ever losing sight of his basic grassroots character. He’s a red-white-and-blue charmer.

Toby’s has always been particularly good at presenting shows with strong African-American casts and themes. Ragtime, Sophisticated Ladies and The Color Purple all spring to mind as truly memorable productions with award-winning leads and ensembles. Memphis belongs in the same vaunted company.

As Felicia, Ashley Lauren Johnson is a natural. A beautiful and dynamic singer, Johnson astonishes with her small sensitive acting moments as well as with her big, gutsy vocal solos on “Someday” and “Love Will Stand (When All Else Falls).” Actresses looking for lessons in how to be intense on stage and yet remain strongly feminine could profit from watching Johnson.

Without exception, all the featured leads here do an outstanding job with their roles. Sayne-Khayri Lewis as the wary and fiercely protective Delray is commanding from his first line of dialogue, and totally rises to the challenge of the show-stopping vocal pyrotechics of “She’s My Sister.” I foresee a Helen Hayes nomination in the near-future for this powerhouse of a performer.

Greg Toumey (Huey Calhoun) and Ashley Lauren Johnson (Felicia). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
Greg Twomey (Huey Calhoun) and Ashley Lauren Johnson (Felicia). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Toby’s veteran Lynne Sigler as Huey’s small-minded Christian mother reverses what could be a cheap stereotype and makes her a palpable inspiration in the gospel-tinged anthem “Change Don’t Come Easy.” Her come-to-Jesus crescendo note here should make true believers of everyone in the audience.

Tobias Young as the sweet-faced Bobby and Jonathan Randle’s heartbreaking Gator more than add to the all-around good feelings of the evening. And let’s not leave out veteran trooper Robert John Biedermann, who emcees the pre-show gaieties and then steps on stage in the role of Huey’s not-always-sympathetic employer.

A fine ensemble of singing and dancing talents makes this one of Toby’s most elevating shows to date. Credit for that also belongs to the live musical direction of the amazing Ross Scott Rawlings and his enclave of musicians, and to the resourceful choreography of Christen Svingos. Scenic and Lighting Designer David A. Hopkins makes the excitement on the center floor as fluid and focused as in any movie. Production values in the costumes by Lawrence B. Munsey and the sound designs of Drew Dedrick are also well in keeping with the high professional standards of the playhouse.

One would have to go back to In the Heights or Rent for a Toby’s show with anywhere near the dance and vocal excitement of Memphis—The Musical. Anyone who enjoyed those earlier productions will know that missing this one is not an option.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.

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Memphis plays through November 9, 2014 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required at (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311, or 800-88TOBYS , or purchase them online.

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.