‘Memphis’ delivers message of racial harmony through rhythm and blues

nophillips@thestate.comJanuary 5, 2014 

  • If you go

    ‘Memphis’ will be staged Jan. 7 and 8 at the Koger Center on Assembly Street. Showtime is 7:30 each night. For tickets, visit www.capitoltickets.com.

The next Broadway play to hit the Koger Center brings the energy of rock ’n’ roll and the seriousness of race relations to the stage.

“Memphis,” a musical set in the 1950s in the segregated city in west Tennessee, features the story of a white DJ who must cross racial barriers in music and in his relationship.

Joey Elrose performs the lead male role of Huey Calhoun, a white disc jockey in 1950s segregated Memphis. In the story, Calhoun falls in love with rhythm and blues music performed in underground clubs on Memphis’ famous Beale Street. Then he falls for Felicia, a singer played by Jasmin Richardson.

Stories of racial harmony through music can be found throughout pop culture including the musical “Hairspray,” where a plucky Baltimore teen tries to integrate a 1960s local TV dance show. “Memphis” embraces that theme with a more gritty sound. But the message is relevant today when bigotry and discrimination continue, Elrose said.

“We don’t shy away from what it was,” Elrose said. “We stay true. We all carry the message so close to our hearts. We all are interested in telling the story.”

The Calhoun character is based on real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, a rock ’n’ roll radio pioneer in Memphis who pushed racial boundaries on the airwaves. Phillips was known for his wild, eccentric style as he announced songs and read commercials.

“He was a little kookamajunga,” Elrose said. “I don’t know how else to say it. He was really off the cuff. The kids loved him.”

As for the fictional character Elrose plays, he also is eccentric.

“He’s real, real stubborn,” Elrose said. “He’s a rule-breaker.”

Along with the message, “Memphis” delivers toe-tapping rock ’n’ roll music to its audiences, Elrose said. Those two elements are what drew him to the part.

The music was written by David Bryan, the keyboard player in Bon Jovi. Elrose describes it as “gritty rhythm and blues and soul.” Although there is a love story woven into the narrative, the lead characters never sing a love duet, Elrose said.

That is why, he said, that even those who scoff at musicals will enjoy the show.

“There are no frilly love songs,” he said. “The music is gritty. You get down with it. It is real.”

When asked about his favorite songs from the Tony Award-winning music, Elrose picked two: One he loves to perform and one he loves to watch.

He praised his co-star, Richards’, singing on “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails.”

“The music is wonderful,” he said. “Jasmin is incredible. And there’s a message.”

His favorite to perform is “Music of My Soul.” It’s the song Elrose sings as his character is introduced to the audience.

Throughout the show, Elrose will be on stage for nearly the entire 21/2-hour performance. He enters the show on the second number and takes one other break to change costumes.

He described each show as 21/2 hours of cardio workout every night. That’s why cast members seek local gyms on the road so they can maintain their endurance.

Elrose said he learned about the necessity of physical fitness for actors early in his career when he earned a role in “Grease.” The song “Grease Lightning” was a 121/2-minute number that included high-energy dancing and push-ups while singing.

“I went, ‘Oh, my goodness,’” Elrose said. “It was a reality check for me. I needed to start working out. Our bodies are our instruments.”

While the cast will be in Columbia for two nights, Elrose said he and other cast members will try to take in local sights. He is part of a group that makes a point of touring capitol buildings whenever they visit a state capital. He also looks forward to trying local food.

“The first thing I do when I get to a new city is go to the site and find the local crew and ask about restaurants near our hotel,” Elrose said.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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