Ottawa Event Review – “Memphis: The Musical” by Orpheus Musical Theatre

HOCKADOO!!!

Orpheus Musical Theatre resumed their season yesterday with an incredible opening night of Memphis: The Musical. As I was not familiar with the story or show prior to seeing it, I wasn’t sure what to expect! While I find that Orpheus productions are typically upbeat, fun musicals that have you smiling the entire show, the one thing that I did know is that Memphis does tackle a serious topic: the issue of racial discrimination in the mid-1900’s in the United States. Orpheus’ approach to this issue was honest and authentic, and they did a phenomenal job bringing light to a topic that is not discussed nearly as often as it should be. Despite the serious undertones in the show, the audience WAS smiling and laughing throughout, as it was also full of humour, accomplishment, joy and love.  

The Production:

Memphis was directed by Lisa James. James has a great deal of experience in theatre, and it shows! I loved her production of Hairspray last year (Suzart) and have seen a number of other shows in which she has had a hand. But she really raised the bar with Memphis. There was not an element of this show that I didn’t like, and I think that is in large part to having a strong and talented director with a vision. I cannot begin to imagine all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into directing a show, and James really did a fantastic job!

In regard to set design, I noticed a difference in the design approach between Memphis and previous Orpheus shows. Typically, the Orpheus sets are complex, with many moving parts; each set piece seemingly converts into something else! I’m also used to seeing elaborate set/prop pieces, like the flying car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (I know that I mention that car in every review, but it was very memorable!) The set of Memphis, designed by Tony Walker, initially appeared (to my untrained eye!) to be more simple than usual, but I quickly saw that it was equally functional, and was absolutely perfect for this show! It eliminated distractions, allowing for the audience to focus completely on the performers and the story unfolding onstage. Massive kudos to Walker for employing a beautifully functional design without overdoing it, and knowing exactly what the perfect backdrop for this story needed to be!

Photo Credit: Maria Vartanova

Costumes and props were once again bang-on for Memphis, which is set in the mid-1950s. The costumes contrasting how different races and classes might have dressed in Memphis were perfect, and although I’m not quite old enough to remember, that is exactly how I would have imagined the downtown music scene to look! Susan Cole and Sandy Goldsmith appear to really know their eras, and their expertise really brought this show to life.

Hair and Make-Up design was also spot on! To start, the hairstyles were so reminiscent of the 1950’s, they really added to the authenticity of the show! In regard to makeup, there is one scene where an actor shows off a scar on his arm, and even the rows closer to the back of the theatre could see and appreciate the realism of this particular gash. It looked SO real! I think special effects make-up is so impressive, and takes a real eye (and a lot of skill!) to bring it to life. Hair and Makeup Design was the work of Tiara Wallace, and I have to congratulate her on a job very well done.

Stand Out Performances

For any of you who may be first-time readers, I like to include a section in my reviews where I highlight the performances that really stood out to me as an audience member. These aren’t always necessarily the leading characters; I pride myself on trying to take in the performance of each and every actor on the stage. Sometimes (quite often, actually!) I find a shining star just doing their thing in the background, giving it their all, hitting every note, every choreographed step, every hilarious one-liner. I love that! This section is a shoutout to the performances that really made a difference in the show for me.

Jack Ettlinger as Huey Calhoun – Okay… I don’t think that I have seen Ettlinger in any shows before, and I am wondering: “where has he been hiding?” His performance was beyond good, beyond great, even. It was PHENOMENAL. From the moment he sang his first few notes, I had goosebumps. Add to these incredible vocals his amazing interpretation of his character, his dance skills, and just his all-around unbelievable stage-presence and comedic timing, and Ettlinger 100% killed it in this role. I cannot imagine that the character of Calhoun is an easy one to portray, and Ettlinger really brought the quirky, socially-awkward, goofy, yet lovable character to life. He is absolutely, without a doubt one of the most talented performers that I have ever seen. Ettlinger’s performance as Huey Calhoun is, in itself, enough reason to see this show. Well done!

Photo Credit: Maria Vartanova

Joy Mwandemange as Felicia Farrell – WOW. I am struggling to find the words to describe the incredible talent that is Mwandemange. Her voice is absolutely flawless. Every note that she sang was met with a silent sense of awe from the audience, until she finished each song, and then the crowd erupted in applause. Her voice is so rich, and it filled the theatre each time she sang. Beyond her vocals, though, her portrayal of Felicia was beautiful! She brought a depth to the character that one doesn’t always see in community theatre. As soon as the audience is introduced to her, they are rooting for her, and  I think that is in large part due to how Mwandemange was able to capture the hearts of the audience. Kudos on a truly remarkable performance!

Axandre Lemours portrayed the character of Bobby, and he made quite an impression on me. This is Lemours’ fourth Orpheus show, which, given the quality of their productions, should tell you everything you need to know about how talented he is! This talent has not gone to waste in Memphis, and I really enjoyed him in this role. Although not one of the lead characters, his portrayal of Bobby was very believable, and the humour that he brought to the character really made him stand out. I first noticed him when he was singing  “no, no, no,” on the phones, but what impressed me and added him into the “stand outs” category for me was his acrobatic ability. A man that tall shouldn’t be able to do cartwheels! I loved it, and so did the crowd! They really cheered for him in that particular scene. I look forward to seeing Lemours again in shows to come; he played a supporting role in Memphis, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see him as a lead in the future!

Photo Credit: Maria Vartanova

Cooper Dunn as Teenage Boy/Stage Manager – Cooper never ceases to amaze! Anyone who is a regular reader knows that this kid is super talented, and often makes my ‘Standout Performances’ section. I often reference his dance skill, and this show was no exception to that. Dunn can dance! But aside from that, he is always in character, always lively on stage, and in general, just always a great character to watch.  

Finally, I have to note the standout performances of Jamie Cachero and Alex Davidson, who, unbeknownst to the audience, filled in for ensemble actors who were ill and unable to perform. These two were so flawless in these roles that it was as though they had been rehearsing as these characters for months. It is absolutely crazy (and amazing!) to me that they were able to do this! They did not seem to miss a note or a step…congratulations on a great performance to both of these talented performers! (And thanks for saving the show!!)

I do have to note that the Standout Performances for this show were among the hardest that I have ever had to write…because every single person on that stage was so, so talented! While I can’t mention everyone, I would be amiss if I didn’t acknowledge the truly remarkable vocals of both Emmanuel Simon (Gator) and Damien Broomes (Delray Jones). Both have voices that sound as though they are professional recording artists.

Honourable Mention for Standout Performance:

The show introduction by General Manager J.T. Morris was absolutely hilarious! The introductions at theatres are often boring, but his was incredibly entertaining, and I really enjoyed it!

Memphis is running at the Meridian Theatres @ Centrepointe until March 19th. Tickets are still available, and I once again will say that you would be hard-pressed to find performances of this high quality at such an incredible price. Orpheus productions truly are Broadway-quality at a fraction of the price. Get your tickets now, and while you’re at it, check out their upcoming shows!

https://meridiancentrepointe.com/en/something-rotten

This June, you can see Something Rotten, from June 2nd-11.th They have also recently announced their “most ambitious line-up yet” for the 2023/24 season, which includes Mary Poppins, Dreamgirls, and The Wizard of Oz! General Manager J.T. Morris has promised some pretty fantastic technical aspects for the new season. Can they top the flying Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car? Only one way to find out!

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