StageArt is a boutique company especially known for taking large – scale Broadway and West End musicals, and reconfiguring them to more intimate performance spaces. Thanks to them, international shows with more specialised target appeal, are now being seen and enjoyed by local Melbourne audiences.
To date, StageArt’s eclectic list of critically – acclaimed productions include:
· The Color Purple;
· The Full Monty;
· Grease 2 – Live In Concert;
· In The Heights;
· Saturday Night Fever;
· Spring Awakening; and
Recently, they announced that their first show for the 2018 season will be the much – anticipated (and rarely – seen), Falsettos.
Making its Australasian premiere, Memphis is a musical drama which covers a range of serious and powerful themes. Set mid – century in the American south, these topics include segregation, forbidden romance, and cutthroat career ambition. Given America’s current political climate, such hot – button subjects are as relevant today as they were sixty – five years ago. It has to be said this theatrical journey, will particularly resonate with anyone who has felt different, outcast or excluded.
Told in two gripping hour – long acts, the show’s book and lyrics are by Joe Dipietro, with music and lyrics by David Bryan.
Memphis is loosely based on the life of disc jockey, Dewey Phillips. A rebel and a pioneer, he was known for spotting, nurturing and promoting new musical talent. Smashing the colour barrier, Phillips was also one of the first radio presenters to introduce black artists to his station’s predominantly white teenage audience.
In Memphis, he is represented by the fictional character, Huey Calhoun. Played to the hilt by James Elmer, Calhoun is a fast – talking, passionate, loose cannon whose dream to educate and inform the masses forms the story’s central focus. At times, Elmer appears to channel Robin Williams from the film, Good Morning, Vietnam.
Calhoun finds his muse, potential meal – ticket, and love interest in the form of Felicia Farrell. Sassy, sexy and smart, Elandrah Eramiha – Feo as Felicia, is the perfect foil to Calhoun’s quirky antics.
Together, both their professional union and personal relationship are tested against a backdrop of racial prejudice and social turmoil. On stage for most of the show’s running time, Elmer and Eramiha – Feo front Memphis with magnetic flair and legitimate chemistry.
In recognition of its daring, Memphis won four Tony Awards (for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Orchestrations) and four Drama Desk Awards (for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Actress in a Musical, Outstanding Music, and Outstanding Orchestrations).
Perhaps the show’s biggest selling point, Memphis features twenty – two original songs which capture the sound, energy and spirit from the rock and roll and girl group era. Each is immediately accessible and collectively, these tunes drive home the story’s engaging, linear and episodic narrative.
Casting is top notch, with an energetic, triple – threat ensemble (sometimes playing multiple featured roles), supporting the show’s confident and charismatic leads. Never once holding back, Greg Pascoe (as Mr Collins / Mr Simmons) Lucas Biondo, Bianca Bruce, Tanisha Buhanec, Wem Etuknwa, Agnes Fifita, Lura Greenhalgh, Stephanie Marion Wood, Lachlan Nash, Tsungirai Wachenuka, Callum Warrender, Jason Yang – Westland and Vidya Makan are present and always in the moment.
With songs telling the balance of the story, many of Memphis’ standout moments are created through the score. Some of these highlights include:
· Eramiha – Feo singing ‘Someday’ and ‘Love Will Stand When All Else Fails';
· Elmer singing ‘Radio’ and ‘Tear Down The House';
· Mandi Lodge (as Gladys Calhoun) singing ‘Change Don’t Come Easy’;
· Nik Murillo (as Bobby Dupree) singing ‘Big Love’;
· Isaac Lindley (as Gator) singing ‘Say A Prayer’; and,
· Iopu Auva’a (as Delray Farrell) singing ‘She’s My Sister’;
Dean Drieberg directs with sensitivity and pace, yet allows Memphis to unfold and develop without ever feeling rushed. (Assistant direction is from Clary Riven.) Meanwhile, Nathan Firmin’s intelligent musical direction, lets audiences grasp and understand the true origin of rock and roll. With Firmin conducting, the strong six – piece band is neatly positioned and tucked away under the auditorium’s stepped seating block.
The visually interesting, static, yet multi – layered set by Drieberg, gives the cast free reign of the space with comfort and ease. Announcing key points in the story, is the use of a flat screen monitor suspended above the right hand side of the stage.
Thanks to Drieberg’s considered design, expert stage management (from Lauren Rosato) kept the action tight and fluid. Small and large props are also brought in an out between and during scenes with little fuss.
Acrobatic choreography by Kirra Sibel makes full use of the venue’s floor area. Capturing the frenetic essence of the times, it is fast, visually appealing, dynamic and intricate.
Emilija Tanner’s costumes are sophisticated and era – appropriate, as well as defining each character or mood where needed. Tanner’s work is beautifully matched by Rachel McLean’s hair and makeup design.
Marcello Lo Ricco’s sound design is immaculate at all times. His work provides a crisp balance between the singers and the band.
Jason Bovaird’s lighting gives the show sharp, visual dimension, as well as clean transitions between scenes.
Since their inception in 2012, StageArt continues push theatrical possibilities, as well as raising their own high bar in creative, technical and performance value.
Memphis is structured in such a way, that it allows its production team and performances many instances to shine, both individually and as a team. Witnessing this special event unfold before my eyes, the synergy shared between the actors, technical crew, musicians and the audience, made opening night electrifying.
Running at Prahran’s Chapel off Chapel for a strictly – limited season, this is a star – turn for all involved. Don’t miss it.
Photo Credit: Jayde Justin