Memphis Coming to Wheeling

Jasmin Richardson’s grandmother, now in her 70s, knows what it was like to be a young, black woman in the 1950s.

And not only did she serve as her granddaughter’s inspiration to her singing career, but Joann Richardson was a great resource to Jasmin in playing the starring role of Felicia in the Broadway touring show “Memphis.”

Broadway’s Tony Award winner for Best Musical in 2010, “Memphis,” arrives in Wheeling on Wednesday at The Capitol Theatre. Curtain is 7:30 p.m.

“(Felicia) is a soulful jazz singer in the 1950s. She has a dream. She sees herself fulfilling the dream of being a recording artist.

“She is a true dreamer. She is a strong woman,” Jasmin said of her character.

Jasmin’s grandmother, a gospel singer who is still part of a singing group in Houston, is her biggest supporter, she said. “She has seen the show. She loved it.”

There are some “hard-hitting” issues about racial equality in the musical, and Richardson could ask her grandmother, “‘What was it like?’ … so I could honestly tell the story. It helped to talk to her about it.”

“Memphis is not too heavy,” but it’s also “not just a fluffy story.”

It opens up dialogue about equality, she said.

“It’s got great music, but allows people to think. People are still fighting for their rights,” she said referring to gay rights in this country. “It’s still relevant.”

In the musical, Felicia’s singing inspires a white radio disc jockey, Huey Calhoun. He helps bring Felicia’s music to the forefront – “It bridges black and white,” she said.

Huey believes the music, which some believed at the time was the “devil’s music,” deserves to be heard, Jasmin explained. Huey’s support – and their love for each other – were not well received at that time in history.

Richardson is the third “official” Felicia, “which is a huge honor for me,” she said.

Prior to joining the second national tour’s cast of “Memphis,” Richardson performed the role of Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls.”

And before that, she had several jobs on cruise ships.

“Cruise ships for me were like vacations,” she said, pointing out she worked a light load of three to four days a week and could spend a lot of time seeing the world on her days off. Touring shows do eight performances a week with one day off.

“It’s completely different; both are great,” she said.

And while the touring life is “not for everyone, not easy, not glamorous and not always fun,” it’s definitely a better career booster.

“I do enjoy myself on this show. The cast is wonderful, which makes it easier.”

Richardson grew up in a musical family. Besides her gospel-singing grandmother, many other family members sang and played musical instruments. A shy child, she discovered her voice around the age of 8 and grew up singing in church. In high school, she was more of an athlete, but decided to audition for “The Wiz” during her senior year.

“Somehow I got (the part of) Dorothy,” she said. “That was an eye-opening experience. I always sang, but acting was not something I did.”

She auditioned to get into the musical theater program at Abilene Christian University, and said she “bombed.”

But, “thank goodness they saw potential.” It was there she learned the craft of acting and realized “this is what I want to do with my life.”

Prior to this tour, her favorite role has been the titular role in “Aida.”

“It’s a really beautiful show with beautiful costumes.. … I was in college when I did that show, and I’d love to do it in a professional setting.”

She said she’d also enjoy the roles of Nala in “The Lion King” and Diana Ross in “Motown.”

Her ultimate goal is to originate a role on Broadway, but “you have to pay your dues,” she said.

Touring in this show, she said, “is awesome in the grand scheme of my life.”

“It’s such a great, great show, and a new show,” she said. The audience, she said, has no expectations, and is “so pleasantly surprised.”

“I get to sing incredible songs,” she said. And “wear really nice dresses – a great perk of being a leading lady.”