Rock 'n' roll v. segregation in 'Memphis'

Chris Bieri

In 1954, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision was a sign that America was finally shaking its fist at institutional segregation.

Meanwhile, a small faction within American radio promoted change by imploring listeners to shake their hips.

The musical "Memphis" brings the audience back to those tumultuous times. It's the story of Huey Calhoun, a white disc jockey who gains notoriety and spurs controversy by introducing "race music" to white audiences in the segregated South in the 1950s.

The musical premiered in 2002 at TheatreWorks in Mountain View, California, and enjoyed a nearly three-year run on Broadway that ended in 2012. The Broadway production earned Tony Awards for best musical and best original score in 2010 and it has been produced in a number of major American cities.

New York actor Joey Elrose plays Calhoun, a character modeled after Memphis DJ "Daddy-O" Dewey Phillips, who was wildly popular with both black and white audiences and was known as the first DJ to play Elvis Presley's debut record.

"It's very funny," Elrose said. "It's a history lesson, but it's got a ton of heart and a fantastic message about tolerance."

Elrose is on stage for nearly the entire show portraying Calhoun, who is alternately a champion for diversity and a lovable goof as he pursues talented African-American singer Felicia.

"Huey is not able to read and is sometimes viewed as being kind of dumb, but there's something strong about him," Elrose said. "He's very stubborn and quick-witted."

Although Calhoun's story propels the production, the star of the show is the score, which evokes early rock 'n' roll and R&B. The music is written by David Bryan, a longtime keyboard player for Bon Jovi, who collaborated with playwright Joe DiPietro.

"A handful of people would come in not knowing anything about the show and we've got a great reaction from older generations remembering the music," Elrose said.

Jasmine Richardson plays the role of Felicia, a singer on the rise who struggles to overcome both individual and institutional prejudices. She's a performer with "such a powerhouse voice," Elrose said.

The production touring to Anchorage will include Alaska's Kaitlin Niewoehner.

"I didn't know the story was as significant as it is," Niewoehner said. "When you're doing the same show for nine months, if you don't have a good story to come back to, it's really hard. This has so much about our history -- where we came from and overcoming prejudices. It's a wonderful story."

Niewoehner took a circuitous route to the musical stage. Growing up in Missouri, she focused most of her spare time on gymnastics until her family moved to Alaska in 2003. Once in high school, she landed on the decorated Juneau-Douglas dance team.

"I just didn't have anything else to do, but I absolutely fell in love with it," she said. "I came to it very late in the game, I guess. But the dance team is very well-established. I think back to that time and it was a place (where) I started dancing but also learned a lot of the skills I need to survive in this industry."

In college, she wasn't sure she wanted to pursue a career as a professional performer, and earned a degree in architecture from the University of Missouri.

But Niewoehner continued to build on her dancing background, training in singing and acting. Since moving to New York, she's been involved in nearly a dozen productions, including a national tour last year with "A Chorus Line."

"This is my first time (working) professionally in Alaska," she said. "It feels like two different lives that are colliding. It's going to be very special to perform there. It gives me a great sense of gratitude."

By Chris Bieri