Berkeley Playhouse’s ‘Memphis’ unearths music of the soul

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During the racially segregated times of the United States in the 1950s, music played an instrumental part in empowerment, expression and, as revealed through Berkeley Playhouse’s “Memphis,” uniting Black and white communities. “Memphis” is a Tony-winning Broadway musical based loosely on the life of disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to feature Black music at the time. Berkeley Playhouse revives this story outstandingly, proving to audiences why the musical deserved such recognition.

With a roughly two and a half-hour run time, “Memphis” is a journey that doesn’t let viewers casually glance at the scenery the whole ride. The musical invites them to step right into the setting of Memphis, Tennessee, from the opening number, “Underground.” From then on, “Memphis” gets witnesses lost in a refreshing way — an out of body experience and into a new world to be explored.

At the heart of “Memphis” is the interracial relationship between DJ Huey Calhoun (Sean Okuniewicz) and aspiring singer Felicia Farrell (Loreigna Sinclair). Okuniewicz and Sinclair are electrifying together, capturing the tenderness of their forbidden love and their fiery defiance of social barriers. Together, they succeed in encapsulating their relationship’s complexity as artists and lovers, but also what it means for the world to see them.

That world heavily includes the characters’ families, and “Memphis” dives straight into how being in love can affect surrounding loved ones. Delray Farrell (Jourdán Olivier-Verdé) dominates the stage as Felicia’s brother, demonstrating his character’s protective and affectionate nature. Gladys Calhoun (Deborah Del Mastro), Huey’s mother, triumphantly depicts the strict hold onto tradition, the hypocrisy of her Christian identity and the generational gaps in values between her and Huey.

Accompanying these skillful performers is an impressive collection of designs exhibiting the era’s visual aesthetic and mood. Scenic designer Sarah Phykitt, costume designer Lisa Danz, prop designer Evan Favela and many more collaborated to craft creative sets and costumes that allow for effortless scene-by-scene interactions and accentuate the extravagance of certain performances. The bulk of the set displays an enormous, old-fashioned radio dial hanging above sizable sliding barn doors. The costumes capture the mischievous style and energy of the ’50s, engulfing onlookers in the past.

This musical resurrection’s casting is phenomenal, with each person holding prominence. There is a sense of unity and flair as each cast member grooves swiftly through the choreography by Christina Lazo, showcasing confidence as performers. They tell a rambunctious story and exude an addicting energy, coaxing viewers to dance along. Complementing these twirls and whirls is a remarkable mastery of singing, especially with the emotional intensity and soulfulness that is necessary for R&B.

“Make Me Stronger,” “Say a Prayer” and “Stand Up” stand out as gripping pleas against the racial violence that occurs in the musical. Polished studio versions wouldn’t do these renditions justice due to the heartfelt anguish that is evoked onstage. Music director Daniel Alley does an exceptional job utilizing musical numbers to carry the narrative further, moving spectators beyond expectations and creating a vibrancy within the cast’s relational dynamics. The music acts as the key to exposing tension in the Black and white communities, but also in opening a gateway to an integrated one. 

“Memphis” is captivating from the outset, inspiring onlookers to search deep in their souls and returning them to the surface with the reminder that, as “Say a Prayer” conveys, change is coming.

Cameron Opartkiettikul covers theater. Contact him at [email protected].