Anne Arundel alumni shine in 'Memphis: The Musical'

  • Anne Arundel Community College dance and opera veterans, from left, Anwar Thomas, Andre Hinds and Tobias Young are performing in "Memphis: The Musical," at Toby's Dinner Theater of Columbia. Photo by Bud Johnson for The Baltimore Sun
Anne Arundel Community College dance and opera veterans, from… (Bud Johnson for The Baltimore…)
September 18, 2014|By Mary Johnson | For The Baltimore Sun

Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia has always been a regional treasure for theatergoers, but the current production of "Memphis: The Musical" has a particular tie to our county with a trio of Anne Arundel Community College alumni offering stellar performances.

Andre Hinds and Anwar Thomas of AACC Dance Company and Tobias Young of Opera AACC make memorable contributions to this show.

Overall, this rendition of the 2010 Tony award-winning "Memphis" 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.

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 as a Memphis native born to bigotry who overcomes her prejudices after finding religion in a black church. Her "Change Don't Come Easy" adds authentic revivalist elements.

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.

It's an extension of the excellence we've seen in the past from Young. In addition to his work with Anne Arundel Community College, he appeared last year in "Les Miserables" and "In the Heights" at Toby's, where he was nominated for 2014 Helen Hayes Outstanding Supporting Actor. Before that, he gave an outstanding performance as Amos in the 2011 Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre production of "Chicago."

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, Anne Arundel veterans Hinds and Thomas and the other dancers dart through space seemingly oblivious to the intimate confines.

These two have shown their talents as dancers and choreographers in numerous productions, including Hinds' outstanding work as Nathan Detroit in the community college's performance of "Guys and Dolls" in 2008 and in "Smokey Joe's Cafe" at the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre in 2009.

"I am so proud of Andre and Anwar who are so talented they're perfect choices for Memphis," said AACC Dance Company creative director Linda Fitzgrald. "Both are triple talents, and I always enjoy watching them perform in whatever venue they happen to appear."

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."

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

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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