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Forbidden love told through music in 'Memphis'

Four-time Tony Award-winning original musical "Memphis" rides the airwaves into Costa Mesa for a two-week engagement at Segerstrom Center for the Arts next week.

"Memphis," two hours of fast-paced action and 19 high-energy song and dance numbers, is set in the segregated 1950s with blues and early rock 'n' roll the vehicle for a tale of fame and forbidden interracial love.

The first national touring company features original Broadway cast members, including Bryan Fenkart as Huey Calhoun, a role he understudied and performed more than 200 times, ensemble member Jill Morrison said.

"The tour is really successful," Morrison, a Mission Viejo native, said in a phone interview. "I don't think we've had a single performance that hasn't had an immediate standing ovation at the end. So, everyone is loving it. It's kind of like a big rock concert at the end of the show. Everyone is standing up and clapping, the entire theater."

According to Morrison, the tour, which opened October 2011, was recently extended a year, due to popular demand. Producers will soon launch a West End run in London that will feature British performers.

"Memphis" takes place on Beale Street in the smoky underground dance clubs of Memphis, Tenn.

Inspired by actual events, the story centers on Calhoun, the first white deejay to play rhythm and blues music in the center of the radio dial for mainstream white America. According to Morrison, Calhoun's character was loosely based off 50s Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips.

Calhoun falls in love with rock 'n' roll and a black club singer, Felicia Farrell (Felicia Boswell), who is ready for her big break. When Calhoun plays her on the radio, the town is left in an uproar.

"Some people compare it to 'Hairspray,' but [the creators] are trying to keep away from a direct comparison to 'Hairspray,' because it is very different and the story goes deeper," Morrison said. "Hairspray is a little more on the surface and this goes deep into racism and things that were going on in the 50s."

Joe DiPietro's vision for the book and lyrics is based on a concept by the late George W. George, producer of the Tony nominated "Bedroom Farce" and the film "My Dinner With Andre."

"Joe had come up with this concept and had been trying to find the perfect writer for the music of the show, Morrison said. "And David Bryan — Bon Jovi's founding member and keyboardist — heard about it and immediately wrote a song overnight and sent it to him in the mail and Joe said, 'You know what, this is exactly what I'm looking for and we need to start working together.'"

DiPietro and Bryan joined forces with a bona fide artistic team of Broadway veterans –– like director and Tony nominee Christopher Ashley ("Xanadu") and choreographer Sergio Trujillo ("Next To Normal," "Jersey Boys").

Together their efforts garnered them four Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critic Circle Awards and four 2010 Tony Awards including best musical, best original score, best book and best orchestrations, according to memphisthemusical.com.

"We [the Memphis team] were ecstatic, because it's very rare these days that there are any original musicals," Morrison said of the awards. "Everything is a jukebox musical based on songs that already exist, or a musical based on a movie.

"And, we didn't have any huge names in it on Broadway at the time, not a big movie star or anything in the lead roles. So, for it to do that well under the circumstances was really exciting."

The production's success was years in the making.

According to Morrison, DiPietro conceived Memphis in 2003 and began preliminary workshops soon after.

Morrison is the only cast member to do all four productions of Memphis, including the tour, Broadway, as well as two workshops in Seattle and San Diego.

"It was a really fun process being with it from the beginning because I got to be there as things were created," Morrison said.

"Sometimes they would just pull me into a room and say, 'Hey, sing this. Try this, or try going even higher.' They would write songs to my voice. And, one of the songs I sing in the show, it was something we wrote on a lunch break."

While in town, Morrison will teach a two-hour musical theater and jazz master class featuring Memphis choreography at Mission Viejo Dance and Performing Arts, 27652 Camino Capistrano, Laguna Niguel. Slated for 2:30 p.m. Nov. 25, the class costs $25 and is open to those ages 10 to adult.

dailypilot@latimes.com

Twitter: @TheDailyPilot

If You Go

What: "Memphis"

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesday through Nov. 18

Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Tickets: Tickets start at $20

Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.scfta.org, http://www.memphisthemusical.com or http://www.jillmorrison.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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