Saturday, February 13, 2010

CD Review: Memphis: A New Musical

Following this blog means that you understand that if I like something, I talk about it at length - next to normal, Angela Lansbury, the hottest Broadway Boys, the prettiest Broadway Girls, and Memphis.  You may recall that this was a show I went into with no expectations, and came out of feeling that rare "musical theatre ecstacy."  I find that usually to be the case, though.  Expectations often lead to disappointment, whereas no preconceived notions can lead to great surprises.  That was certainly the case here.  I found a new appreciation for an actor I admired in Chad Kimball, discovered a potential new Broadway diva in Montego Glover, and a gifted, if novice, Broadway composer in David Bryan.

Title: Memphis
Artist: Original Broadway Cast Recording
Label: Delray Records*
Number: 1 23456 78901 2*
Format: Single CD
Case: Single Jewel Case
Booklet: Full color production photos; Complete lyrics
*Note: This is a "Special Limited Edition" available only at the theatre or at the Memphis online store.  The "label" and "number" are in lieu of a distributing record company.  There are rumors as to why this is, but they will not be discussed here.

On the Show and Its Stars:  In my review, I wrote: "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?  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.  Then, too, are the huge score, the riveting story and fast-paced direction worthy of consideration.

This recording only solidifies my opinion about the overall show and especially the leads, who come across beautifully in this recording (as do ALL of their supporting cast).  Any doubt or uncertainty about the quality of Ms. Glover's voice can be dismissed once you hear her powerful "Colored Woman," followed immediately by her smooth pop vocal stylings in "Someday," and later in the gospel rouser, "Stand Up."  And Mr. Kimball more than proves his ability as a leading man.  He can really sell a song like "The Music of My Soul," and he tears the roof off the Shubert Theatre and blasts through the speakers on "Memphis Lives in Me."

On the Book and the Score:  I wrote: "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."

Memphis' three stars: Chad Kimball, Montego Glover and David Bryan

I stand by what I said there, with one caveat as explanation.  With time to really soak in the music and lyrics, I am particularly impressed with the score itself.  Mr. Bryan has clearly done his research and shows that he is capable of writing in a variety of styles, while maintaining the needs of a Broadway score.  What could have easily come across as a "jukebox musical" or a "pastiche score," is anything but.  His music is completely original, even as it reminds us of the styles of early rock n' roll.  The lyrics by Bryan and DiPietro, however, diminish in quality with repeated listening somewhat.  Most of the time, it is in keeping with the styles they are writing in - story songs bluntly tell you who is who and what is what, character songs are rather surface-level in complexity (most noticeably in "She's My Sister" and "Change Don't Come Easy).  That simplicity often mirrors the lyrics of similar songs that actually existed in the period.  But when you have a score that is often approaching and even meeting Dreamgirls in quality, one wishes the lyrics were as inspired through out.  Of course, I try to remember that what plays well live in front of you doesn't necessarily translate as well in isolation.  And that is certainly not to say that all of the lyrics are substandard - none are, really - but they simply need to go deeper to achieve all of their potential.

On the Recording:  Memphis maintains the long string of cast recordings that are superbly produced, with exceptional sound quality and performances that are as fully realized in the studio as they are on stage.  The orchestrations by David Bryan and Daryl Waters are fantastic.  The horns and percussion are particularly well represented here.  And the "bonus track" of David Bryan singing "Memphis Lives in Me" is a terrific addition.  Were current musical tastes suited to this, or if Broadway musical songs were once again the rage of the airways, this single would be a number one hit, I am sure.  The full color booklet offers a well-written synopsis, a short but poignant essay by Loraine A. Boyle, and the complete lyrics, as well as several production photos.

Standout Songs:  These songs, in particular, stand out because they represent the very best of the score AND the full potential of the lyrics:  “The Music of My Soul,” the catchy “Someday,” the hilarious “Big Love,” (sung by the terrific James Monroe Iglehart, above left) 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.

As this show and The Addams Family may be the only original scores this season, that alone should get musical theatre enthusiasts to buy this CD.  But beyond that, I recommend it for catchy hummable tunes, great numbers to learn and belt into your hairbrush, and most of all as a great way to remember a great show full of exuberant performances and a score created by a relative newcomer.  Here's hoping that Memphis will not be the last we hear of David Bryan.

Grade: A-   Huckadoo!

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  1. I really enjoyed Memphis, too. I thought Chad Kimball and Montego Glover were great. I've been waiting to get the cd, but it doesn't seem to be listed at Amazon. And it is kind of expensive from the web site. Also, I'm glad they included the full lyrics. I hate it when they skimp on that.

  2. When I went to the merchandise booth to buy it ($25), I asked the guy about when it would be availabe at Amazon and Best Buy, etc. and he told me that it all comes down to resolving a distribution issue. That's why, he said, there is no record label on the "special edition." I'm glad I got it, and since I usually get them for way under the list price, I guess a "special splurge" is ok once in awhile!

  3. I had the same reaction. Had such a great time. Musical Theatre "ecstacy" is a good way of putting it. Glad that it's finding its audience.


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