Presenting the Soul of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Music historians and lecturers always credit Black gospel, rhythm & blues, along with boogie woogie and jazz, for giving birth to America’s 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll craze – a perennially popular music genre to this day. I’ve attended several such scholarly talks, but getting it with your brain is nothing like feeling it in your gut … and soul. That’s why MEMPHIS, the musical that’s creating a sensation over at Broward’s hottest new musical venue, the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center (LPAC), made me wonder: “Where has this phenomenal show been all my life?”

A Broadway hit from 2009-2012, nominated for eight Tony Awards and winner of four – Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book, and Best Orchestrations, no less – “Memphis” really needs to be produced more often. Not only does it feature fantastic music and co-written lyrics (with Book writer Joe Di Pietro) by Bon Jovi rock star David Bryan, the show’s utterly mesmerizing plot line offers a lesson in American history that’s often overlooked – especially nowadays, in our politically hijacked state. The musical is based on a true story that took place in 1950’s Memphis, Tennessee, where a gifted music visionary – in the unlikely form of a frenetic, illiterate but gutsy self-made DJ –  falls in love with Black church choir and club sounds that he calls “The Music of my Soul.” 

Samuel Cadieux

Young Huey Calhoun is a poor White boy with a strong Memphis/Southern-Appalachian accent who breaks all social norms to follow his passion for raw musical expression that can only be found in the Black side of town. When he sneaks into a local radio station’s DJ booth (soporific from Perry Como) and spins a rollicking Black club favorite instead, the station’s young White audience goes absolutely gaga for this new and highly danceable beat. With the phones ringing off the hook and excited listeners begging for more, interloper Huey is “trial”-hired on the spot. 

Huey Calhoun is primarily based on real Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips whose on-air persona was that of a speed-crazed hillbilly. Samuel Cadieux’s high-energy embodiment of this unique character is pitch-perfect in every way – weird accent and all. (YouTube offers several recordings of Phillips’s radio programs. He was first to repeatedly broadcast Elvis Presley’s debut record and upon interviewing the 19-year-old, asked which high school he attended in order to prove he was White [reminiscent of a line in our play]. 

Morgan Sophia Photography

All of the endemic and blatant racism of the segregated South presents a constant challenge to Huey’s mission to publicize Black music, their vocalists, backup singers, and bands. He honorably refuses an offer to enrich himself by keeping (in effect not stealing) their repertoire, and switching all the performers from Black to White in order to attract a wider TV audience. 

Because he’s impervious to all forms of discrimination, this young man naively feels he can act as he pleases without worrying about the deep-rooted revulsion toward the mixing of races in his town – not to mention miscegenation laws. He gets a terrifying wake-up call when after an earnest proposal of marriage to his beautiful and talented Black girlfriend (whom he’d courted for years), they kiss. The couple’s romantic moment is shattered by a gang of white supremacists who interrupt their “criminal act” by brutally attacking them both. 

Huey first heard Felicia sing at her brother’s Black underground club; it was love at first sight (or sound). She’s far more leery of an interracial relationship, but Huey persists in both wooing her and launching her career. After carrying on in secret for two years, she admits she’d accept his marriage proposal were it not for the outside world’s impediments. And that cruel “outside world” then beats her within an inch of her life. Over a kiss. 

The role of Felicia Farrell is outstandingly acted, and sung, by Sydney Archibald who – like her character in the play – left the South to launch a successful career based in New York City.  (Lucky for us, she’s come back to her home state of Florida for this show.)

Sydney Archibald

Along with Huey, we are instantly impressed by Felicia’s act at her brother Delray’s (formidably played by LPAC returnee, and local and touring favorite, Don Seward) Underground Bar/local music dive. A red neon “Bar” sign hangs overhead and the rock ‘n’ roll beat of the “Underground” opening song-and-dance number by Delray, Felicia, and Company portends plenty more rollicking good times to come.

Various city locales are instantly switched onstage – from the opening’s White and Black DJ booths, to Delray’s club, street scenes, Huey’s mom’s blue-collar kitchen, and more. Set design by Stephen Gifford and lighting design by Preston Bircher, engineered by Lowell Richard, are spot-on to the era. As are all the 1950’s attire via costume master Penny Koleos Williams provided by NETworks based on the play’s original costumes by Paul Tazewell. Those of us of a certain age can vouch for their authenticity. I fondly remember wearing swirly skirts and pedal-pushers; there’s even some lightning fast jump-rope action. 

I also find it extremely clever – and doubly entertaining – to be listening to hot new rock songs “on the radio” while watching them performed live on stage. We can thank LPAC’s phenomenal artistic director Michael Ursua, who works double-duty as music director, for keeping everything running smoothly and on key, aided by experienced pro choreographer Alex Jorth and backed by Christian Taylor’s sound design.

Every cast member who gets to perform a featured song is wonderful, as is the entire company of backup singers and dancers. Since all the show’s numbers are originals, as an audience we, too, get to rediscover the power of rock ‘n’ roll – along with Huey’s enthusiastic young fan base. “Memphis” is a fun, quirky, often humorous and absolutely exuberant theatrical experience (can the birth of rock ‘n’ roll be anything less?). But it also holds an undercurrent of sadness regarding racial discrimination whose nuances resonate all too loudly to this day.

It’s sad when someone as spunky and talented as Felicia must explain to her White boyfriend the facts of Black life and career limitations due to the color of her skin. “Colored Woman” is a true eye opener. Still there’s hope when even a typical, born-and-bred racist like Huey’s mom Gladys (Jodie Langel) finally gets with her son’s program (especially once her life is enriched by his earnings) after an inspiring visit to a Black church choir. And we get to appreciate Langel’s beautiful voice and hilariously liberated moves in “Change Don’t Come Easy.” 

Morgan Sophia Photography

Huey Calhoun is a huge catalyst for change in everyone he meets. Even to the point of surprising shy janitor Bobby (Bryan Morris) – a big man with a big voice – by drafting him to sing (by pretending he’s in the washroom) as a “special guest” before a large TV audience on his American Bandstand-style show. 

Remembrance of things past can be bittersweet, but is also essential. We’ve come a long way as a country where “separate but equal” (which was never equal) is no longer tolerated, but we must never whitewash what came before – no matter how uncomfortable it may make certain segments of the population feel – or we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Especially in today’s anti-Black history, anti anything “woke,” book-banning and ignorant outlawing of critical race theory environment.

The lessons and legacy of “Memphis” can’t be ignored. Quite simply, if you love rock music, you can thank the Black community and a couple of passionate racial-barrier-breaking White boys for bringing us the joy of this musical phenomenon. And it all began when someone like “Hockadoo”-spouting Huey commandeered a DJ’s mic … and blasted the rambunctious rock number, “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night.”

Caring and kindness can be redemptive. Delray’s trusted mute crony Gator (TJ Pursley) ultimately raises his voice in song, wishing for beaten Felicia’s recovery in “Say a Prayer.” In his concern for another, he also saves himself from a lifetime of speechlessness caused by witnessing the lynching of his father as a young child. 

Meanwhile, despite claiming “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails,” Felicia, once unleashed, is unstoppable (or maybe just more realistic, realizing she can only live as a free Black woman, and successful artist, up North). Sadly, she can’t convince Huey to join her and abandon his hometown: “Memphis Lives in Me.”

It’s a bittersweet ending to the saga of their love story. But not to the musical revolution that’s only just begun. We’re up on our feet, joining the cast, clapping and then applauding to the beat of the musical’s final number, “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Exhilarated by the experience and grateful for the outstanding talents of the “Memphis” cast and creative team that gifted us with this first-rate, unforgettable show. 

Experience the birth of rock ‘n’ roll! Sydney Archibald and Samuel Cadieux ignite the
stage in MEMPHIS, winner of four Tonys including Best Musical, playing only through
March 3 at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center (LPAC). By Morgan Sophia Photography

MEMPHIS, playing only through March 3, marks the next-to-last show of LPAC’s impressive 2024 Broadway at LPAC season that began with perennial favorite A CHORUS LINE and ends with blockbuster HELLO DOLLY, winner of ten Tony Awards. HELLO DOLLY will be playing from April 4 through April 21.

The Lauderhill Performing Arts Center theater venue is grand but not too large, all seats have great sight-lines, there’s an elegant lobby with snack bar, and convenient free parking out front and back! For lovers of matinees, like myself, Wednesdays and Thursdays offer a LUNCH BOX MATINEE catered by TooJays at 1 pm (an hour before the show) in a dining hall adjacent to the auditorium – so there’s no need to worry about enjoying a pre-show lunch with friends and getting to the theater on time. 

There are special deals for larger groups, but even couples and individuals can choose among six popular deli items, including salad and vegetarian options, that come with chips, a real deli pickle, a large, homemade chocolate chip cookie and your choice of soda or water for just several dollars above the regular ticket price. With premium seats included! Attending LPAC may be one of the best entertainment values in town.

The Lauderhill Performing Arts Center (LPAC) is conveniently located in Central Broward Regional Park, off 441 just north of Sunrise Blvd. Address is 3800 NW 11th Place, Lauderhill 33311. For tickets, more information, and seat selection, head to their website at Or call the Box Office at 954-777-2055.

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