Moonlight Amphitheatre season opens with La Jolla Playhouse-launched musical ‘Memphis’

"Memphis" actors Bryan Banville, left, and Janaya Mahealani Jones and director Jeffrey Polk
Actors Bryan Banville, left, and Janaya Mahealani Jones go over a scene with director Jeffrey Polk for Moonlight Stage Productions’ “Memphis.”
(Fred Tracey)

Tony Award-winning musical is the based-on-fact story of a 1950s radio DJ who introduced Black music to White audiences


Next Wednesday, May 11, Vista’s Moonlight Stage Productions will open its 41st summer season at the Moonlight Amphitheatre with the Tony-winning musical “Memphis.”

It will be the first locally produced staging of the musical since its pre-Broadway tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse in August 2009. It will also be the first time the musical’s Tony-nominated director, Playhouse artistic chief Christopher Ashley, has seen a production of “Memphis” directed by anyone else. Director/choreographer Jeffrey Polk is making his Moonlight debut with “Memphis.”

Ashley, who won a Tony Award in 2017 for directing the Playhouse-launched musical “Come From Away,” has already ordered his Moonlight tickets and is eager to see Polk’s take on the show.

“I’m excited about the new aspects and colors and nuances that a different director and designers can bring to it,” Ashley said. “It’s what you hope for as a director, that it will have a life that continues and new people will do new interpretations of the show. I’m delighted that Moonlight is doing it, and I’m delighted that it goes on.”

“Memphis,” with a book by Joe DiPietro and score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, tells the fact-inspired story of how some progressive white Southern disc jockeys (including Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips) helped spur the birth of rock ‘n’ roll by playing Black artists’ records on the radio in the early 1950s.

In the musical, fictional Memphis DJ Huey Calhoun falls in love with Felicia, a Black singer in an underground Black nightclub, sparking racial conflicts in the segregated city, as well as a debate over the pillaging of Black artists’ music by White singers and producers.

“Memphis” was the first show Ashley directed at the Playhouse after being appointed its artistic director in 2007. The 2010 Broadway production earned three Tony Awards, including best musical, score and orchestrations. It played 1,196 performances before heading to London’s West End for an 18-month run and has since been produced many times in regional, touring, summer stock, college and amateur productions.

Ashley said the musical seems especially timely and popular now as the nation undergoes a racial reckoning over its treatment of Black Americans.

“Race in America is such a central discussion, and I’m curious to see how it’s handled in this production,” Ashley said.

Actors Bryan Banville, left, and Janaya Mahealani Jones rehearse for "Memphis."
Actors Bryan Banville, left, and Janaya Mahealani Jones rehearse for Moonlight Stage Productions’ “Memphis.”
(Fred Tracey)

The “Memphis” creators — writer, composer and director — are all White, but Moonlight’s “Memphis” director-choreographer Polk is Black. He hopes to bring some fresh insights to the show based on his own life experience and his grounding in the Black music and church communities.

“There are some things I’m hoping to bring to it, some more authenticity,” said Polk, who has enjoyed a long career as a performer, musician, director and choreographer. “I grew up in a gospel choir, and even though the creators did a great job with ‘Memphis,’ I want it to feel like my choir as a kid did — where there was more joy, more feeling and more oomph. I also understand the energy of the underground scene it represents. As a young man in my 20s, I was always going to clubs. We’d dance until dawn and never knew what time it was.”

Polk grew up in San Bernardino, where he said there wasn’t a sharply drawn color line on the local radio stations, which played everything from the Beatles to Aretha Franklin. It wasn’t until he visited family in Texas as a boy that he saw how life and music were more segregated in other parts of America.

“It was like an awakening as a kid,” Polk said, who said directing and choreographing this big-cast musical has been both a challenge and an honor.

“I respect what they did and I think it’s brilliant and I thank them,” Polk said. “They’re honoring the Black music in such a way that it made things clear in my mind that I can be honored to be a Black man directing this.”


When: Opens Wednesday and runs through May 28. Showtimes, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Gates open at 6:30 for picnics and catered dining

Where: Moonlight Amphitheatre, Brengle Terrace Park, Vale Terrace Park, 1250 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista

Tickets: $17 to $61

Phone: (760) 724-2110