Memphis, the city, means Beale Street, blues and soul food. Memphis the musical means white deejay airs black music and breaks the racial barrier.
And all that’s pre-Elvis, so you can see why Julie Johnson makes an impact every time she sings, “Change Don’t Come Easy.” She plays the mama of Huey, who visits the Beale Street underground, falls for a young black singer and the music performed there, and makes it his mission to get a radio disc jockey job and introduce “race music” to white Memphis.
A small-town Texan, she was getting ready to play Gypsy’s Mama Rose in Dallas when a call came to audition as another mother in the Memphis touring company which opens Jan. 15 in the Omaha Performing Arts Broadway series. Mama Rose pushes daughters’ careers and Huey’s mom tries to pull her son away from black music and black women.
But the crowd will be cheering for her when she “gets the spirit” while attending a big black gospel church. Then she sings that “Change” song and “it always gets a huge response.” Fans tell her “It’s my new favorite show.”
Julie signed up for to tour as the mama with one condition: She wouldn’t go without her son, Trey. He was 13 when she started New York rehearsals in September, 2011, 16 months ago, and he’ll go along for the ride until May in Orlando. “Then we’ll do Epcot.”
Mother and son were in Boston, taking in early American history, when we talked. After a holiday break back home for two weeks in Whitewright, Texas, they go to Milwaukee before landing in Omaha, Tuesday through Jan. 20.
Here, Trey will be out front selling programs, dvds and t-shirts (like the one with white suspenders on black with “Big Daddy” over “Got Big Love.”). And he’ll find time for the zoo and other metro highlights.
His home schooling is going well, according to his mother, who calls it “a once in a lifetime experience.” But she’s quick to emphasize that she’s a great supporter of public schools as the daughter of two public school teachers.
Her mother is also a musician and piano teacher, so it wasn’t unexpected when Julie was cast in her first musical at age 19. “I played Golda (in Fiddler on the Roof) as a teen-ager and again in my 40s,” she noted.
But she hasn’t been confined to motherly roles. Leads have ranged from Patsy Cline to Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and her most recent character part before the tour was as Frau Schneider in Cabaret.
“I trained to be versatile,” she said, noting that Patsy requires a different voice than Mama Rose or her current role. Her co-star who played Patsy’s friend was Sally Struthers of “All in the Family” fame.
The Memphis tour started, as one might suspect, in Memphis, where Ms. Johnson went to diners to listen to people talk. She felt she’d successfully traded her Texas accent for a Tennessee country girl when a Tennesseean told her, “You sound just like my grandmother.”
She suggested that “some in the South might bristle a little bit, but they end up feeling like it is telling their story.” She’s accustomed to the show winding up with “everybody literally on their feet during the final number.”
Her character is the only one undergoing a major change during the course of the evening. Julie draws on the experience of growing up with great-aunts, grandmothers and so on, “who were raised believing a certain way, but showed kindness to people.”
That helps her see Huey’s mother “as not just a prejudiced person,” before she changes. As for the hyper deejay son, she says the condition now known as ADD was then simply AMDJ, the manic style of morning disc jockeys.
Huey gets a big response from a white radio audience when he shocks management by playing, “Everybody Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night.” Song titles include “The Music of My Soul,” “Scratch My Itch,” “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Kiss” and “Steal Your Rock n’ Roll.”
With music from Bon Jovi keyboarder David Bryan and lyrics and book by Joe DiPietro, the show swept Broadway musical awards in 2010 including Tonys, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle honors.
Memphis runs Jan. 15-20, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Orpheum Theatre on 16th Street in Downtown Omaha, presented by Omaha Performing Arts Broadway series. Tickets starting at $25 are sold at TicketOmaha.com, Holland Performing Arts Center and 402.345.0606.