Theater Review - Aurora Theatre and Theatrical Outfit bring 'Memphis' to Atlanta

Production's exploration into issues of races and marriage equality prove timely

Fortunately and unfortunately, the Broadway musical Memphis feels even more timely now than it did in New York in 2009. The show is loosely based on the real life of disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who was one of the first DJs to bring African-American artists to the center of the radio dial in the 1950s. The main character of the show, Huey, is a white DJ who breaks down barriers by introducing bobby-soxers to a new world of music, and along the way he falls for a talented black singer named Felicia. Their interracial romance faces struggles, and Felicia eventually chooses her career over Huey's crusade. The show pulses with energy and drama and provides an honest look at the South and some thought-provoking content given the current dialogue surrounding issues of race and marriage equality.

Naima Carter Russell, who is portraying Felicia in the current production of Memphis at Aurora Theatre (before it moves to Theatrical Outfit in September), notes that putting herself into the mindset of her character and the time period is a challenge of the role, considering the precautions Felicia would be required to take to protect herself on a daily basis. Russell and her co-star Travis Smith (Huey) worked together previously in the musical Godspell at Theatrical Outfit, but both actors admit they have upped their game and developed greater stamina and endurance while working on this high-energy show.

"It scared me into quitting smoking because there was just no way I was going to make it through six or seven shows a week and not take really good care of myself," Smith says, laughing. "So, we start working on the cardio and backing off the bourbon!"

Huey is on stage for nearly all of the show's two hours, and with the requirements of a on-air voice in addition to the musical numbers, the role takes on an almost operatic vocal character. As for Russell, the emotional journey of her character leads her to savor the ride home afterward as she takes time to decompress before returning to life as a mother to her 16-month-old daughter. Her husband, Eugene Russell IV, plays Gator in the production, and their families and friends are all hooked into a scheduling app on their phones to manage caring for the baby while the couple takes on these roles.

Smith notes that a friend advised him back in 2008 that Huey was a role he was born to play, and once he heard the song "Memphis Lives in Me" on the original Broadway soundtrack he felt something inside.

"Something about it just hit me in the gut, viscerally, I was just like, 'Oh, I want to sing that song in front of people,'" he says. "It got me in my bones, and I just wanted to be a part of it."

Russell has also been impressed by the collaboration between Aurora and co-producer Theatrical Outfit, assembling the talented cast and crew and working together to create the production — all while working on a budget significantly less than the type of resources Broadway would offer, Smith remarks.

"It's about the human condition and a little bit about our dark past as a country," Smith says. "What we're going for is a more authentic, kind of a more raw musical than you would see with the glitz and glamour of a Broadway budget. It is more intimate, more immediate, and just a little dirtier."

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