Raleigh Little Theatre

Through Sept. 11


★★★ ½

Theatre Raleigh

Through Aug. 28

One single mile separates two poles of 1950s musical history in Memphis, Tennessee: Sun Studio, where legendary producer Sam Phillips recorded country, blues, and rhythm and blues, along with a new thing called rock ’n’ roll; and the Hotel Chisca, where irrepressible disk jockey Dewey Phillips (no relation) shattered radio’s racial barriers—in a strictly segregated city in the deep South—at WHBQ-AM. Significantly, you can’t get to one from the other without crossing Beale Street, that Rubicon of restaurants, bars, and music halls where countless musicians got their start while the city’s black population dined, drank, and danced.

By a rare stroke of programming luck, two Raleigh productions this week lead us on divergent, rewarding excursions through the same neighborhood in those protean years. Million Dollar Quartet closes Theatre Raleigh’s summer shows at Kennedy Theatre as the regional premiere of the 2009 Broadway musical Memphis opens the fall season at Raleigh Little Theatre. Taken together—and I think they should be—the pair form a small symposium on the drastic changes that rocked popular music and culture in that decade.

In Quartet, competition in the music business is dividing a formerly tight-knit group of friends as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis crash Carl Perkins’s studio date at Sun on December 4, 1956. The unexpected result was musical lightning in a bottle: a supergroup of early rock pioneers in an unrehearsed first—and last—recording session together.

Director Tim Seib captures the tensions simmering under the surface of this gathering of friends. Phillips (a strong David McClutchey) has gotten the men who made Sun Records together to celebrate a contract extension he’s offering the socially awkward Cash (Ted Bushman). When Perkins (Michael Kennedy) is late for his session, Lewis (a carbonated Ian Fairlee) starts rehearsing a couple of new numbers with the band: a drummer and a stoked rockabilly bassist portrayed by Jon Rossi and Jason William Steffen, respectively. When Perkins arrives, sparks fly between him, Lewis, and Elvis.

McClatchey’s narrator guides us through the backstories in the book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott that lead up to this encounter. Under Rossi’s musical direction, the troupe dependably revives rockabilly classics, including Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Presley’s “That’s All Right” and Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire.” In their midst, Taylor Kraft’s Dyanne memorably torches the Little Willie John classic “Fever.”

Memphis contrasts Quartet’s extreme close-up with a panoramic, fictionalized account of early cultural desegregation, in a more earnest and accurate account of the similar storyline in John Waters’s Hairspray. At first, Huey (Zak Casca), a rambling wreck of a young white rhythm and blues fan, begs merely to be permitted to see and hear his favorite players in Beale Street clubs where whites are persona non grata. Then he campaigns to take their songs to “the center of the radio dial”—on the big stations where the likes of senescent DJ Buck Wiley (Randy Jordan) play music by white pop powerhouses like Perry Como and Roy Rogers.

Huey’s timing is excellent; the city’s teenagers embrace his unorthodox patter and new sounds. But an air of increasing menace permeates his rise to the top of Memphis radio and television as he pushes against cultural boundaries, both on the air and in his developing romance with Felicia (an incandescent Aya Wallace), a black singer he features on his show. Felicia’s brother, Delray (an imposing Juan Isler), views Huey with increasing mistrust, and then acts on his misgivings.

Artistic director Patrick Torres and music director Michael Santangelo helm one of the strongest productions Raleigh Little Theatre has ever produced. A solid band and ensemble confidently ushered us into Delray’s subterranean club in the raucous opening ensemble number, “Underground.” From that point, the convincing leads and a quartet of supporting actors formed an unshakable core. Chase Rivers sang a larger-than-life rendition of “Big Love” in his character’s unexpected big break on TV, and Jade Arnold’s Gator gave gravitas to scenes including his solo, “Say a Prayer.” In her performance as Huey’s harried mom, Gladys, stage veteran Alison Lawrence gradually morphs from fear-based racism to something better in the stirring gospel songs “Make Me Stronger” and “Change Don’t Come Easy.” Meanwhile, Del Flack’s short-fuse radio station manager, Mr. Simmons, remains baffled by Huey’s popularity—but he’s more than happy to rake in the profits he brings.

Delivered with such authority, and paired with L.D. Burris’s vivid choreography, composer David Bryan’s songs energize the show in witty numbers “Everybody Wants to Be Black on Saturday Night” and “Crazy Little Huey,” as well as Felicia’s soulful stand-outs, “Someday” and “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls.” But momentum lagged in the workmanlike lyrics of Huey’s penultimate solo, “Memphis Lives in Me.” And Joe DiPietro’s book closes with an unlikely reunion and the overreaching resolutions of the finale, “Steal Your Rock and Roll.”

Still, strong performances overcome these momentary disappointments in works that honor different musical and cultural antecedents. Together, Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet make for an illuminating walk down different streets of an important old neighborhood.