Thursday, 01 June 2017 09:00

Memories of Memphis

Written by  Marla R. Miller
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Memories of Memphis Photo by Jeremy Daniel

For those who couldn’t catch it on Broadway: Memphis isn’t just another jukebox show.

Not only is it the West Michigan premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical, it’s the largest production in Mason Street Warehouse’s 15-year history and is intended to pack a punch.

The critically acclaimed musical features a storyline inspired by actual events and, impressively, all-original music. The story is loosely based on a white radio DJ who helped bring the sound of the R&B clubs out of the underground and make it mainstream during the 1950s.

It’s also a story of racial tensions, forbidden love and a black club singer who is ready for her break in the music business, set in the places where rock ‘n’ roll was born.

“It will make you laugh, think, cry — it runs the gamut of emotions,” said Kurt Stamm, Mason Street Warehouse’s founder and artistic director. “The music is just terrific. It’s a classic, a big piece of musical theater. You just can’t go wrong with that.”

Stamm recalls it was 16 summers ago that he walked into an abandoned pie factory in Saugatuck and decided to join forces with Saugatuck Center for the Arts to develop a summer theater. A year later, in 2003, they made do without electricity or running water to produce the first season.

Mason Street Warehouse is West Michigan’s only summer equity theater, where professional actors from New York City, Chicago and the Midwest spend five weeks in Saugatuck to perform with regional and college thespians during the busy tourist season.

Mason Street experienced one of its strongest seasons in 2016, selling out Million Dollar Quartet, and Stamm hopes for a repeat for its 15th anniversary season. He had 32 roles to cast and received more than 3,400 submissions for the season.

“Almost all of our leads have all worked on Broadway,” he said. “We get really, really good people who work for us. Over 15 years, I’ve tried to build a theater with a good reputation in the way we produce that work and the way we treat our acting company.”

Stamm also gives credit to the audience’s intelligence and tries to avoid theatrical drivel, instead presenting musicals and comedies with deeper stories. This summer’s lineup is important in that it speaks to many relevant social issues around race, religion, sexual orientation, diversity and inclusion.

“That wasn’t the driving force for the shows that I ended up choosing, but it does so happen that I think the season is quite poignant in that regard,” he said.

Stamm is directing and choreographing Memphis, the winner of four Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book and Best Orchestrations. It features a cast of 19, sophisticated choreography and memorable music set in underground nightclubs, radio stations and recording studios. Memphis, and much of the South, was still racially divided in the 1950s, and it was a very precarious time in history. A white DJ had to patronize black clubs to help bring the artists out of the shadows, and interracial romance came with many struggles.

“I think sometimes we need to be reminded our country was not so great at times,” he said.

“It does tell this powerful story of the extreme struggle that blacks faced, specifically in the entertainment industry during that time.”

For those who liked Million Dollar Quartet, Memphis is the story about how it all began, but with large dance numbers and lively rock ‘n roll. 

“The music is so spectacular in this show, you will feel like you’ve heard these songs because they have that feel of rock and roll from the ’50s,” Stamm said. “People are going to be wowed by what they see and the cast we have is just extraordinary.”

Next up for the theater is Fully Committed, running from July 21 to Aug. 6, which features one actor playing 40 characters in 90 minutes. It’s a comedy that serves up juicy schemes and hilarious characters vying for the best table at one of New York’s trendiest restaurants. Sam works the reservation line, running interference on their antics.

“It’s a riot,” he said. “It’s a full story with all of these different characters that he has to play.”

Closing out the season is It Shoulda Been You, Aug. 18 to Sept. 3, which wasn’t a critical success on Broadway, but is the perfect blend of great storytelling, interesting characters and good music, Stamm said.

“It has all those great elements that audiences want to see,” he said. “This musical has one of the best plot twists of any musical I’ve ever read. It’s very, very fun. It’s like a big wedding that totally goes awry; it’s definitely like a Frasier episode set to music.”

Memphis: The Musical
Mason Street Warehouse at Saugatuck Center for the Arts
400 Culver St., Saugatuck
June 23-July 9, $38-$46
masonstreetwarehouse.org,
sc4a.org, (269) 857-2399

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