A joyous, high-spirited journey to 'Memphis' at Toby's

Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia has always been a regional treasure for theatergoers, but the current production of "Memphis: The Musical" proves that no smash hit is too big for Toby's to produce with pizazz.

The theater's intimate in-the-round venue brings the action so close to audiences that they become part of it, expanding the emotional impact into new dimensions.

With book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music and lyrics by David Bryan, "Memphis: The Musical" ran on Broadway from 2009 to 2012, and captured four Tony Awards in 2010, including best musical.

The show offers an uplifting message of the trials and tribulations of 1950s Memphis, where a new rhythm-and-blues sound is being heard in underground clubs. Ninth-grade dropout and disc jockey Huey Calhoun discovers the music of his soul, and blues singer Felicia Farrell wins Huey's heart as well as she delivers her rocking tunes in her brother's Beale Street dance club.

The show conveys a powerful message, as underachieving hero Huey, motivated by his love for Felicia, confronts a Memphis community in which interracial marriage is prohibited.

From the opening scene, Greg Twomey imbues the role of Huey with a distinctive swagger, and he is thoroughly convincing in his love for Felicia, played by Ashley Lauren Johnson. When Huey lets the magic roar in his anthem "Music of My Soul," the mood is set for the relationship that naturally follows.

The chemistry between Twomey and Johnson is undeniable, adding reality to the stage relationship. Both talented actors bring emotional credibility, genuine poignancy and profound love to their roles. They also deliver gorgeous singing that defines their relationship.

This cast's noteworthy actor-singers include Sayne-Khayri Lewis as Felicia's protective brother and club owner Delray. When he sings "She's My Sister," he invests it with brotherly concern.

Veteran Toby's actor-singer Lynne Sigler portrays Huey's mother, Gladys Calhoun, as a Memphis native born to bigotry who overcomes her prejudices after finding religion in a black church. Underscoring her character's new-found faith, Sigler delivers a show-stopping rendition of "Change Don't Come Easy," adding authentic revivalist elements.

Tobias Young skillfully portrays shy janitor Bobby, who gets his first big chance to sing, delivering a show-stopping "Big Love." The character conveys initial nervous jitters before hitting his stride in a powerful vocal display, and Young proves the right man for the job.

Adding excitement and a joyously sensuous mood is Toby's fabulous ensemble of dancers. This group flawlessly executes choreographer Christen Svingos' challenging dance routines. Displaying dazzling athleticism, the dancers courageously dart through space, seemingly oblivious to the intimate confines.

Among this fabulous dance troupe, special mention is due Jeffrey Shankle, who brings joyous zest to every sharply executed move.

Fellow dancer Anwar Thomas also been a mainstay on the local and regional scene, and was nominated for a 2012 Helen Hayes Award in choreography for Toby's production of "The Color Purple."

This production's artistic director and co-director Toby Orenstein brings consummate knowledge of her theater space to create a masterwork almost certainly destined for multiple Helen Hayes Awards.

Orenstein is supported by co-director Lawrence Munsey, who delivers distinctive showmanship while enhancing the production with his costume designs. Ross Scott Rawlings ably directs his skilled musicians, the expert lighting design is by David A. Hopkins and the sound design is by Drew Dedrick.

"Memphis: The Musical" continues at Toby's in Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, through Nov. 9. A buffet dinner is included in the price of the ticket. Call Toby's box office at 410-730-8311 for reservations.

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