"Sweet, greens and ham hocks, soul sound" is the colorful explanation that "Memphis Soul" bestows on the raw, bluesy belting that Stax Records made famous during the '60s and '70s. It's also an apt description for Black Ensemble's sweat-drenched, pitch-perfect musical celebrating the legendary label. While Motown polished and whittled the edges off traditional soul singing, creating a pop-friendly style, Stax went the other direction and dug deep into the Delta grit that informs true soul music. "Memphis Soul" illustrates this brilliantly, capturing the spirit and the sound of a label that is too often overlooked.
The musical blasts open with Jimmy Tillman's nine-piece band tearing through the Bar Kay's "Soul Finger," setting the tone for a pumped-up two hours. A quartet of dancers, expertly choreographed by Rueben Echoles, twirl and leap with a kitschy blend of ballet and '60s moves that effectively underscore the story. Strolling down the aisle in a pink satin cape, pink suit and white patent go-go boots, Rufus Thomas (a show-stopping Rick Stone) sings, dances and mugs through hits such as "The Breakdown" and "Do The Funky Chicken." Thomas also acts as MC, guiding the audience through the Stax saga of hit-makers like Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes, as well as the back-story of financial mis-steps and thievery.
As usual, director Jackie Taylor coaxes the nine-member cast into beautifully nuanced and entertaining performances. Mavis Staples (Toi Overton) and Isaac Hayes (Dwayne Lonzo) in particular stand-out as dead-on personifications. Also as usual, the story, by David Barr III, takes a back seat to the music. The plot line of two bar-owners struggling to hold on to the Stax legacy in the wake of a 1980 Stax reunion doesn't quite work. By the second act, the meandering dialog only serves as a resting place between the high-energy tunes. Although Barr manages to slide in some important historical nuggets, such as Rufus Thomas recording for Sun Records before Elvis, most of the play's substance lives in the music. That said, "Memphis Soul" resurrects the Stax sound so convincingly that it really doesn't matter.