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Musical ‘Memphis’ provides two diverting hours in Berkeley

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

White deejay Huey Calhoun (Sean Okuniewicz) and black vocalist Felicia Farrell (played by Loreigna Sinclair) enjoy a bigotry-free dancing moment in “Memphis.” Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.

Although I award it only one star for originality, I give the “Memphis” musical four for sheer entertainment value.

The opening night audience, which shook the proverbial rafters at the Berkeley Playhouse with thunderous applause and cheering, might rate it even higher.

The crowd’s excitement stems partially from a minimum of half a dozen showstoppers.

Which certainly keep my toes tapping.

Via high-energy music (and lyrics) by Joe Dipietro, and book and lyrics by David Bryan, co-founder of and keyboard player for Bon Jovi, that ranges from rhythm ‘n’ blues to gospel to rock.

Played by an eight-piece band that cooks but doesn’t drown out the singers.

“Memphis” features outstanding characterizations by elastic-legged Sean Okuniewicz as hard-drinking white deejay Huey Calhoun, based on real-life Dewey Phillips, the first to broadcast Elvis Presley’s record debut disc, “That’s All Right,” and Loreigna Sinclair as power-throated black vocalist Felicia Farrell.

Plus multi-shaped, multi-racial chorines and singers.

All of them battling bigotry in the ‘50s — Jim Crow attitudes, including Caucasian take-it-for-granted use of the n-word and Southern miscegenation laws; baseball bat-beatings that render Felicia unable to have children; and a lynching that leaves a boy speechless for years.

The main premise of the 24-song show is likeable — and still meaningful in 2020’s polarized national climate — albeit somewhat hackneyed: Huey and Felicia are drawn to each other and meet secretly despite a societal ban on inter-racial couplings.

Entranced by her singing at her brother Del Ray’s all-black club, he desperately wants to put her on the air on a white station, regardless of the odds, as he ascends the audio staircase to become No. 1 in Memphis.

She, however, is more interested in relocating to New York for a show biz triumph.

Obstacles to their dual success, of course, are many.

Even his racist mother erects barriers.

The set of “Memphis” includes, on a second tier, a huge illuminated radio dial under which sits a sound booth from which Huey excitedly bellows his love of “race music,” which up to then has been limited to an African-American audience.

And from that platform, he randomly yells a defining “Hockadoo!” — which, according to the online Urban Dictionary, means whoo hoo or yay.

Huey’s character, not incidentally, also parallels that of Cleveland’s Alan Freed, who played R&B and its totally black musical predecessors that I used to listen to as a suburban New York teen.

Brendan Simon, director of the show that won four Tony Awards, including best musical, transforms the 21-member cast into a fast-paced singing and dancing army that at best evokes massive smiles as it bounces from here to there and at worst comes off as what I’d call “soul lite,” sort of a throwback to “Hairspray” and a handful of similar outings.

Simon’s aided by Bryan’s penchant for humor, zesty choreography (some gymnastic) by Christina Lazo, and appropriately colorful costuming designed by Lisa Danz.

Especially potent supporting players are Deborah Del Mastro as Huey’s willing-to grow mom, Jourdán Olivier-Verdé as Felicia’s protective brother, and Jon-David Randle as Gator, the shocked kid who becomes Huey’s protégé and advocate.

In the program that’s handed out, the director explains why he thinks the “Memphis” revival is important.

He contends that since we’re “living in and through the darkest and most divisive time in American history…until we can courageously, humbly, and truthfully confront the trauma of our segregated, broken history, we will repeat it in perpetuity.”

Would that the musical could perform a necessary miracle to change that.

Most likely, it can’t.

But maybe it can raise awareness an iota or two.

Comparatively minor flaws in the Berkeley production of “Memphis,” a show that began its three-year Broadway run starting in 2009, are that lyrics are muffled now and then, an occasional dance step is blown, and an integrated jump-rope scene is executed a bit sloppily.

Those items certainly are fixable.

Regardless, all things considered, a theatergoer like me can relax and enjoy about two hours avoiding the racism in the real world

Hockadoo, y’all.

“Memphis” will play at the Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley, through March 15. Evening performances, 7 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays; matinees, 1 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $29 to $44 (subject to change). Information: or (510) 845-8542, ext. 351.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at or

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