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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Memphis’ uplifting

Appleton’s PAC is host to the energy-charged touring musical.

PHOTO: Joey Elrose and Jasmin Richardson star in the production of “Memphis” playing at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.

APPLETON, Wis., (WFRV) – Singing soars and dancing is hot in “Memphis.” And there’s more: It’s a tale of struggle in the face of segregation in the South.

Time was, this musical would be too hot to handle for America. Now, it is a voice of inspiration and hope.

The show walks the fine line between being preachy and being entertaining. It lifts the spirit.

A vibrant (4½ stars out of 5) production of the musical re-launched a national tour Tuesday night at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. Performances continue through Sunday, Oct. 20. Info: www.foxcitiespac.org.

Firecrackers lace the cast.

Jasmin Richardson, RaMond Thomas and Avoince Hoyles fuel key songs with impassioned feeling. Those songs leap past showbiz and find meaning.

The story is based on reality, with abundant artistic liberties: A radio disc jockey dares to play “race” music on the air in 1950s Memphis, Tennessee.

Huey Calhoun is white, illiterate and rough around the edges. He taps into music he’s heard in a club on Beale Street, where his presence is met by bared teeth. He’s the only white person there. Huey bungles through positions in a department store to record-department success and onto the airwaves, where brings a-live music to a larger world. Huey is drawn to the luster of Felicia, a voice and a person. Interracial love drives some of the drama.

Memphis” is a bit of a history lesson. The show re-visits times of open racial prejudice. It uses the “N word,” which was met by a gasp on opening night. (That was extremely interesting).

In performance, Joey Elrose digs into the blindingly naïve drive of Huey. He explores the huge complexities of the strangely sympathetic part, which doesn’t require the greatest singing voice (others are all around). His “Tear Down the House” is filled with frayed emotion.

Jasmin Richardson is Felicia, a star to be. Richardson lights up such songs as “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails” and “Colored Woman” and radiates strength in Felicia’s love for Huey and her desire to rise above a beating by thugs.

Richardson is not the only performer in this company to deliver wowing vocals.

RaMond Thomas plays Felicia’s brother, who is pure grit and anger in “She’s My Sister.”

Avionce Hoyles is Gator, a character rendered speechless by a horror who becomes a beacon for reason in the profound “Say a Prayer.”

Jerrial T. Young is the steady Bobby, who wears many hats as a side character and explodes into dazzling dance moves in “Stand Up.”

Pat Sibley has a wonderful character role as Mama, who is dismayed and increasingly alarmed by things Huey does. At first, she’s a dumpy woman whose world is solely black and white. Eventually, she’s a person found and a delight in the motivating “Change Don’t Come Easy.”

Production-wise, the show clicks as it moves from department store to radio station to nightclub to Huey/Mama’s house to TV studio, etc. Behind the backdrop is a feisty band (the trumpeter of which shoots up a rocket note as the audience departs). Ensemble dancers erupt.

The songs are original to the musical. That means instead of bringing back the songs that were the real hits of the ’50s, the creators came up with new music and songs to better able the performers reach in to the soul of their characters.

The book and lyrics are by Joe DiPietro and music and lyrics by David Bryan. Working from a (“gee, how did that happen?) concept by George W. George, the talent of DiPietro and Bryan led this show to earning a Tony Award as best musical on Broadway.

Tuesday night’s performance earned a standing ovation. In part, that was for appreciation of seeing a highly motivated company.

ADDED EVENT: A discussion will explore the diversity themes found in “Memphis.” Led by Fox Cities Rotary Multicultural Center. All ages. Free. Harmony Café, 233 E. College Ave., 4-5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17.

VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level,   a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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