'Memphis' brings Stax sound to Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall

Memphis, which won the 2010 Tony Award for best musical, makes its bay area premiere Tuesday to begin a weeklong run at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Created by playwright Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan (music and lyrics), it tells the story of a white DJ in segregated Memphis who broke the race barrier by playing black rhythm and blues records on his show.

It stars Bryan Fenkart as Huey Calhoun — loosely modeled on Dewey Phillips, a Memphis DJ in the '50s — and Felicia Boswell as a singer. With a nine-piece band, the show sports an artful amalgam of the legendary Stax sound, named for the Memphis record label of Otis Redding and other soul greats, and musical theater.

"The first time I read Joe's script, I knew exactly how the show should sound," Bryan said. "I grew up on that kind of music, songs like Hold On, I'm Comin' and Knock on Wood."

For one actor in the cast, the Memphis engagement at the Clearwater hall is a homecoming. Quentin Earl Darrington, a Lakeland native and USF grad who plays the principal role of Delray, a club owner, won Ruth Eckerd's youth talent scholarship for musical theater as a teenager and studied at the hall's Hoffman Institute in the 1990s (see sidebar).

Memphis opens Tuesday and runs through Feb. 12. $40-$70. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Feb. 12. (727) 791-7400; rutheckerhall.com.

To read more about Memphis, see Sunday's Latitudes.

John Fleming, Times performing arts critic

Back to the start

For Quentin Earl Darrington (above), next week's run of Memphis at Ruth Eckerd Hall promises to be special. "It's coming home, it's definitely a homecoming," says Darrington, who has the principal role of Delray, a club owner, in the musical.

Darrington, 33, a Lakeland native and University of South Florida graduate, has been involved with the Clearwater hall since he won its youth talent scholarship for musical theater as a teenager. He regards the hall's former president and CEO, Robert Freedman, who recently retired, as an important mentor.

"From the point I won the scholarship, I started volunteering at the hall, and Robert saw that in me and we developed a relationship," says Darrington, who also performed in many cabaret shows at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (now the Straz Center). The actor credits Freedman with helping him to get his big break, winning an audition to play the leading role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in a 2001 tour of Ragtime.

"From that day to this day, Robert and his wife, Leslie, and the entire team at Ruth Eckerd Hall have been a pivotal part of my career as a whole, as far as the decisions I've made, what shows to take," says Darrington, who made his Broadway debut in the 2009 revival of Ragtime, again playing revolutionary piano man Walker. He has also been in tours of The Color Purple and The Lion King.

Darrington plans to stay with the Freedmans at their home not far from the hall during the Memphis engagement.

John Fleming

'Memphis' brings Stax sound to Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall 02/01/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 3:30am]

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