Penn State Musical Theatre graduate shines in touring Broadway’s ‘Memphis’

It’s the 1950s in Memphis, Tenn. In what some called the “Fabulous Fifties,” others found a decade of seemingly impossible dreams. Broadway’s Tony Award-winning best musical “Memphis” -- a story of passion, forbidden romance and rock ’n’ roll -- recalls the era in a high-energy production that includes Penn State graduate Keely Beirne. 

Beirne, who earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in Musical Theatre at Penn State, is making her national tour debut as a member of the “Memphis” ensemble and an understudy for the lead female role of Felicia. The touring Broadway show comes to Eisenhower Auditorium on Thursday, March 27.

“Memphis” won four Tonys in 2010. In addition to the prize for best musical, the show also earned Tonys for original score and orchestrations by David Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi, and book by Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”).

The musical unfolds amid underground dance clubs. Inspired by actual events, it’s a story of a love affair between an interracial couple—Felicia, a rising singing star, and Huey, a DJ determined to change the status quo. Having an interracial relationship, especially at that time in the South, was a challenging and potentially dangerous life.

Beirne, the daughter of an interracial couple, has an insider perspective. Like the female and male protagonists in “Memphis,” her mother is African-American and her father white.

“It is so incredible that I can live the life I live now … . I have been blessed with so many opportunities since our country has progressed,” Beirne said. Not that long ago, she continued, “I probably wouldn’t have been born because my parents wouldn’t have been together. The characters in this show experience that. There are laws against them getting married.”

“Memphis” is a unique piece of musical theater, Beirne said.

“It tells an incredible story of American history,” she said. “… If you think how far we’ve come today, and see what people went through -- the turmoil and the danger -- I feel people leave the theater uplifted and proud.”

While her usual part in the show’s ensemble is primarily dance, the role of Felicia is mainly singing and acting.

“We get to do the blocking, and the staging and the singing full out as if we were running the show with the understudies in place,” she said of her understudy training. “None of the leads come, and we don’t even have the full ensemble but walk through it as if it were really happening.”

Half a century and 1,100 miles removed from the city of Memphis, Beirne grew up in Manalapan, N.J., where she took her first steps to the stage through dance training. While attending a performing arts high school, her first appearance in a musical came in a production of “West Side Story.”

Later, as she was applying to dance schools, she learned about the Musical Theatre program at Penn State. When she visited Penn State, she said, she fell in love with the University and its faculty.

“I knew this is what I wanted to do,” she recalled, “and I knew that was the school that I was going to go and do it.”

The actress has been in a number of regional productions, including “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Phantom” and “42nd Street” with the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and “Hairspray” at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Auburn, N.Y.

Beirne, who’s understandably excited to once again perform in front of her Penn State family, said this won’t be her first time on the Eisenhower stage.

“I was in ‘Bernstein’s Mass’ last spring, so it will be a familiar stage,” she said. “And I also graduated on that stage, so I’m just really excited to be back because I love Penn State.”

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Last Updated March 19, 2014