Quentin Darrington is a force of nature, a human exclamation point. You’d almost peg him as a motivational speaker or politician — but his charm is more genuine.
A 2004 USF alum who’s returning to the area this week as part of the Broadway touring production of the 2010 Tony Award-winning romp-and-stomp Memphis: The Musical, he’s a proud booster of his alma mater.
“I love USF!” the actor beamed. “I’m the biggest Bull you’ll ever meet!”
Raised in Lakeland, the actor won a scholarship to USF with the help of Robert Freedman, the former president of Ruth Eckerd Hall, where Memphis is making its Tampa Bay premiere.
“When I first heard Quentin Darrington perform almost 13 years ago, I knew he was a singular talent with very special vocal abilities,” said Freedman. “After seeing Memphis on Broadway, I knew he would be absolutely perfect for the role he is playing in the Memphis on tour.”
Memphis takes place amid the racial tensions of the 1950s segregated South. The story centers on Huey Calhoun, a feisty DJ based loosely on the eccentric and music-obsessed “Red, Hot and Blue” host Dewey Phillips — the jock who played Elvis for the first time. Trouble brews when Calhoun falls in love with Delray's sister Felicia (Felicia Boswell) and Calhoun shows the vocal powerhouse what lies beyond her brother's nightclub. Julie Johnson, Rhett George and Will Man also co-star.
Darrington's favorite moment in the show comes when the two men meet face to face and almost put aside their differences. The mix of regret and tension is palpable — it’s a scene that requires hefty emotional range.
According to Bryan Fenkart, who plays Calhoun, the rehearsals for Memphis were deliberately designed to heighten those differences. The “Beale Street” black and “Main Street” white performers rehearsed separately in what he suspects was an intentional move to give the two groups impetus to out-perform each other.
The Memphis tour opened — where else? — in Memphis on Oct. 14. The cast got a chance to inhabit the world of their characters, strolling down Beale Street, visiting WDIA, the first all-black radio station in the U.S., Stax records and Sun Studio, where Elvis first recorded.
“It was surreal and incredible,” says Darrington.
The USF actor’s big break came in 2009, when he starred as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime, a role he performed to a sold-out Kennedy Center and reprised on Broadway in 2010. Before Broadway, he starred in The World of Jacques Brel— his favorite Tampa role — directed by Claude McNeal. He was also a member of the Repertory Theater Company and the performing arts center’s former company in residence, the Center Theatre Company.
Three cities are now home to the busy actor: Manhattan, Champagne, Ill. — where his children live — and Lakeland, his old stomping grounds. He visits the Tampa campus often — the last time in September 2011, when he hosted a gala celebrating the university’s major donors. He helps with fundraising, volunteering, teaching and Q&A’s with aspiring theater students.
“We used to say that USF looked like prison — the dorms looked like bland cellblocks,” he jokes. “Now it’s incredible! Every year I come back, there’s something new, it seems.” He praises the school’s expansion, its “huge push” in international studies and the terrific acoustics of the new Barness Recital Hall — and, of course, the football team.
He maintains his Lakeland ties, too. Every year, while he’s home for the holidays, he stages and stars in a production of The Gift of the Magi with his hero and former high school drama teacher Paul Hughes.
Like Darrington, Bryan Fenkart radiates a pride in Memphis that seems too warm and enthusiastic to be a PR spiel.
“The camaraderie is better than most shows,” Fenkart says. “There’s a real passion we find because it started as such a word-of-mouth show, the little show that could. It’s a very young, hungry cast.”
Fenkart, 30, has a forceful yet unaffected vocal delivery and, in conversation, he’s both laid-back and eloquent. He says he stumbled into theater, moving to New York from Midland Park, N.J., when he was 25 and quitting “his survival job” as a doorman at Caroline’s when he was 27.
He doesn’t flinch when asked how he paid his dues. “I’ve done a lot of commercials. … Talk about embarrassing ones, I had to wear a giant bee costume. That was for The Old Country Buffet. That one never aired, and hopefully never will!”
Since then he understudied for lead Chad Kimball on Broadway, and he recorded and self-produced his debut pop album, Simple & Grey, which released on Jan. 17.
His character’s fondness for vintage tunes comes naturally to him. He reminisces about artists like Billy Joel, his biggest influence, and Elton John in a way that suggests he was born a couple of generations late. Perhaps it’s because his dad influenced him with all those “storytellers” on the hi-fi.
Joe DiPietro, the mastermind behind Memphis’ book and stylistic presentation, shares Fenkart's respect for the past, combined with an ear for what will work in mainstream musical theater. He chose David Bryan, the keyboardist for Bon Jovi, to write the score, because he felt that Bryan filters early rock influences — gospel, blues and jazz — though the ears of a modern rock 'n’ roller.
According to critics from The New Yorker and the New York Times, DiPietro and Bryan’s filter diluted the songs. The Times said that DiPietro and Bryan’s revamp sounds like rock and soul as interpreted by Michael Bolton, characterizing the overall production as a cartoon.
But one man’s Disney is another’s escapist entertainment. Memphis has also received praise and awards for its high-voltage performers, stunning aesthetics, nimble footwork, and above all, its acting. This week, with a USF alum in a key role, we get to see why.
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