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'Memphis' will rock as Corn Stock season finale

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Music transcended race in the 1950s, a time when people enjoyed what they heard on the radio without caring about who was playing, said Bryan Blanks. He hopes that message gets through in the musical “Memphis,” which opens Friday at Corn Stock Theatre.

“When you think about that, you have to wonder why we can’t do that now. This show takes place in the 50s, but what it says to the audience is just as important now,” said Blanks, who is directing the show that will close Corn Stock’s summer season under the tent in upper Bradley Park.

“Memphis” show is making its regional community theatre premiere. A winner of four Tony Awards in 2010, including Best Musical, a professional company of the show played the Peoria Civic Center in October 2013.

Blanks was unable to see that performance and knew little about Memphis when it was suggested he take a look at it and submit it for consideration for Corn Stock. “When I first heard the music, I fell in love with it and I didn’t want anybody else to direct it before I could. So I said I wanted to do it when it was submitted,” he said.

Now, after a year of studying the show, including reading the script and listening to the music, “I
feel even stronger about this show. When I first heard it I remember that a couple songs really stayed with me. Now they all do,” Blanks said.

“Memphis,” written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, tells the story of Memphis disc jockey Huey Calhoun, who becomes enamored with a black singer named Felicia at the underground nightclub Delray’s. He wants to help get her on the radio and in so doing, falls in love with her. Interracial love was taboo in that time period. The show is said to be based on Dewey Phillips, who was one of the first white DJs to play black music.

Songs from the show include “The Music of My Soul,” “That’s Not Possible,” ”Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night,” “Radio,” “Love Will stand when All Else Fails,” “Change Don’t Come Easy,” and “Steal Your Rock and Roll.”

Leading the cast of more than 30 people are Deric Kimler, who portrays Huey, and LaTaisha Howell as Felicia. Their story of forbidden love resonates through the show, Blanks said. “They are the heart and soul of this production,” he said.

Other performers include Anthony Hendricks as Delray, Brandon Chandler as Gator and Sally Hodge as Gladys Calhoun, Huey’s mother. All are known in community theatre circles, with Hodge returning to the stage for the first time in more than three years. “Sally brings a real natural quality to the role. I think audiences will embrace her each night,” Blank said.

Another actor he cited is Ronnie Hudson, who portrays the janitor at the club in making his community theatre debut. “You would never guess this is his first show,” Blanks said.

“A lot of these people were vocalists, but they connect so well to their characters and to this show they are wonderful. The script, for the most part, could stand on its own without the music and our cast could do it just as well,” he said.

The show, though, is music and dance heavy and Blanks turned to Holly Haines to direct the music and the nine-piece orchestra. She also plays with the group, which includes the three well-known local musicians of the Sloter family – Molly, Maggie and Dana.

“I have to admit that the band was one of the things I was most nervous about, but my jaw dropped the first time I heard them play this music. They are outstanding,” Blanks said.

The bulk of the choreography was designed by Sarah Wilcoxen and other choreography was by Blanks, Lise Higgins and Dedra Kaiser.

Blanks said he hopes the audiences embrace all the characters in the show and recognize that race is still an issue today as it was in the 1950s. “I hope people kind of realize that they only think we are further along (in race issues) than we really are. I hope they embrace our characters, black and white, and keep moving forward,” he said.

“Memphis” runs nightly through Sept. 3, starting at 7:30 p.m. each night. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students and can be ordered online at www.cornstocktheatre.com or by calling (309) 676-2196.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).