Tuesday, October 20, 2009

REVIEW: Memphis: A New Musical

Imagine all of the best parts of Jersey Boys + the serious themes of Hairspray + the soul of Dreamgirls. You'd have Memphis. Is it perfect? No. What is? But I think Chad Kimball will get a Tony nomination (too early to predict more not knowing his competition). Montego Glover might just, too. Then, too, are the huge score, the riveting story and fast-paced direction worthy of consideration.

The Book and Score: The music, by Broadway newcomer David Bryan, if you like early rock and roll, gospel, blues, R&B and rockabilly, is excellent. The lyrics and book, both by Joe DiPietro, are an interesting blend of stereotypes, but never clich├ęs, and subtle word play of excellent caliber. That is to say, the casual theatergoer who doesn't really pay attention to the art of it will get it and be moved, and there is plenty there for the rest of us to dig into. Bryan and DiPietro, most recently together on off-Broadway’s The Toxic Avenger, have been working on Memphis going on six years, and that gestation has paid off in a tight, exciting story about love of music, of others and of self, all while detailing the birth of rock and roll from the smoky depths of the “colored clubs” to the mainstreaming of "race music" into the fabric of America. Among the standouts in a uniformly good score are “The Music is My Soul,” the catchy “Someday,” the hilarious “Big Love,” and the rousing anthem, “Memphis Lives in Me.” Not only are there a variety of musical styles in the score, but they completely fit the progression of history and the plot of the story.

The Story: One Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), illiterate and jobless, but with a dream, hears the intoxicating music of the underground clubs, and particularly those of Felicia Farrell (Montego Glover). An uneasy alliance is formed when Calhoun promises to make the lady a star by getting her music on the radio. Act One follows that story to a violent climax, while Act Two finds both at the height of their popularity in Memphis and the promise of big things to come in the new world of television. Along the way, Huey and Felicia are alternately supported by and troubled by family and friends. On Felicia’s side, her brother, the massive and talented Delray (played by the massive and talented J. Bernard Calloway) objects to the interracial union, but grudgingly goes along with it as success seems closer than ever. Her friends Gator (the sweet Derrick Baskin) and Bobby (the mesmerizing James Monroe Iglehart) are there to support both she and Huey. Huey has less support, even though both his mother (the perfectly cast and strong Cass Morgan) and his radio and TV boss (the alternately funny and infuriating Michael McGrath) don’t seem to mind reaping the benefits of the success Huey has brought, even though they loudly object throughout.

The Direction and Choreography: The staging, a giant departure from Christopher Ashley’s all-about-the-fun Xanadu, is as smooth as a jazz saxophone, exciting as a driving drum beat and moves a lot like a movie. There are no breaks; once it starts the ride doesn't stop until intermission, and you start right off on a "big hill" at Act Two. Act One is all about radio, cleverly staged considering how literally unmoving radio has to be in real life. Act Two is equally creative in depicting TV, including live feed video. The one scene of violence was tastefully done, but still appropriately uncomfortable. I never thought I'd see a woman beaten with a baseball bat live in front of me.

The dancing by choreographer Sergio Trujillo is also excellent...it looks like it would be fun to learn and do, and the cast isn't trying too hard to sell it, like the poor ensemble in Bye Bye Birdie; they seem to be genuinely enjoying it. It resembles (in spots) Hairspray, but the nature of the beast - interracial TV dancing - dictates that it should be similar. All of the dances offer smooth commentary on each scene, from the slow sensuality of the R&B to the frenetic energy of rock and roll. It is particulary interesting to watch the same dance vocabulary being executed by the “colored” dancers and the “white” dancers. Great care has been taken to show their equality and their inherent differences.

The Technicals: The voluminous costumes, most on and off in a rapid fire of fast scenes and scene changes, are period perfect as designed by Paul Tazewell. I can't imagine the costume crew backstage...rapid costume changes galore, and really snazzy stuff. Equally impressive is the set design and unique use of projections designed by David Gallo. It evokes the period, the economics and the mood of the piece, overbearing where it needs to be and subtly out of the way when things really gear up. Howell Binkley again shows why he is among Broadway’s finest lighting designers with lighting that is unobtrusive in the book scenes and heightened and exciting in the performance scenes. Needless to say, the lighting and other technical aspects of Memphis fit the staging and themes like a glove.

The Stars: But it is most nice to see Chad Kimball in a role that is worthy of his considerable talents. He BECOMES Huey Calhoun... his voice, his body language, his range, his voice... are just amazing. And the chemistry between him and Montego Glover was palpable and instant. The audience is on their side from the first scene; and when a character matter-of-factly, without thought of consequence uses the “n” word, I think the entire sold out audience shuddered and gasped at the same time. The matter-of-fact delivery, I think, made it more frightening and shocking than any other racial slur said in anger.

I think Memphis has the potential to be Jersey Boys huge, but it also has the chance to not be taken seriously by critics who don't review musicals, unless they are by Sondheim, like they are really an art form rather than a live version of a commercial film. I wonder how many of them will be able to see that the stereotypes are presented to give us a common language to start from, and will they see the subtleties? I also bet more than one will take exception to the ending, which I won't give away (because you need to see this), but I will say may be unsatisfactory for those who need all the t's crossed and i's dotted. Instead, the creators, I think, do what the very same critics often moan about - they go for a character driven ending, not one to please the masses.

Huckadoo! Memphis is Grade A!

(Photos by Joan Marcus; Playbill cover by Playbill)

Have you seen Memphis? Tell us what you thought!


  1. Saw it last weekend and LOVED it! Music and choreography were excellent. Cass Morgan stole the show.

  2. Hi, Lisa!

    Welcome to the MEMPHIS fan club...LOL! So glad you loved it, too!

    Were you there with the Obama girls?



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