Monday, May 9, 2011

REVIEW: Memphis (Film)

Review of the nationwide screening of Memphis: A New Musical on May 3, 2011.  Starring Chad Kimball, Montego Glover, Derrick Baskin, Cass Morgan, J. Bernard Calloway, James Monroe Iglehart and Michael McGrath and the Broadway Cast.  Music by David Bryan.  Book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro.  Choreography by Sergio Trujillo.  Directed for the Stage by Christopher Ashley.  Directed for Film by Don Roy King.  Running time: 2:45, including pre-show documentary and intermission.


Opera has been doing it for years (live and recorded) and some West End shows, too.  And now, at last, Broadway has joined the cinema revolution with the recent screenings of Memphis.  This is history in the making, folks, and it is a concept I fully embrace.  This screening, at limited screens and at limited times, brings Broadway to the masses if the masses so choose to partake.  The show couldn't be more current (just a year old AND the current Tony-winning Best Musical) making it a draw for true theatre fans all over the country, and at $20 a ticket (plus a small fee), affordable in comparison to the real thing.  By making it a strictly limited engagement at a limited number of theatres, it not only makes the film a "special event,", but it also takes away the fear that it could seriously impact the audience of the show at the Shubert Theatre.  If anything, at least from what I heard people saying during the intermission, it should help it gain some audience on tour and on Broadway.  Why?  Because as great as film is, and this one in particular is pretty darned great, it will never replace the experience of live theatre.  But a close approximation might just light the fire under a few and reignite the fire for people who haven't been in awhile.

There are many advantages to film.  First, as the show was filmed live over several performances, the best of each scene and number can be edited together to create a "definitive edition."  Second, you get a great view, no matter where you sit, and you get to see things that even a front row seat at the theatre doesn't give you, like tight close-ups, focus on reactions by the supporting and ensemble characters, and even sweeping views of the whole stage when important.  Third, with special recognition for film sound designer Matt Kaplowitz, you can hear the orchestra and singers at comparable and notably clearer levels.  The sound literally surrounds you and every lyric, word and note is crystal clear.  And, of course, it drowns out the chatty Cathys that inevitably sit right behind you, running commentary and all.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to film versus live performance; as I said, film will never replace the live theatre experience.  First, film also "tells" you what to look at - you have no choice as to what you are seeing as the film is the only view you get at any given minute.  Second, there is automatically a limit to how much you can react to something. There are no holds for laughs, and, while the audience I attended with applauded freely throughout, there is no chance for really being enthusiastic without clapping yourself into not being able to hear the next scene.  And finally, and perhaps most importantly, you have no live connection going on between cast and audience.  That electric current between the house and the stage is notably absent.  Yes, you can hear the recorded audience react, but it just isn't the same.

There is one aspect of the film that I loved, simply because you can't really do it in a live performance, and there is one thing that inadvertently effects a filmed version of a live show.  What I really loved was in act two, during Huey's TV show, we often saw it as if we were watching our old black and white TVs.  We could see it the way it was meant to be seen, in effect.  The thing that I really didn't like is that with the sound so attuned to the performers, no slack could be cut for breathing loudly and for all those little sounds we make between words and sentences.  Live, it comes off naturally.  HD sound makes it sound odd. 

Fortunately (or unfortunately, as you choose to look at it) this really only effected Chad Kimball, a heavy breather and word-slurrer/gasper/grunter of the highest order.  Because Mr. Kimball is portraying a larger than life character, some license has been given in allowing him to exaggerate speech and physicality, I am sure.  And as he was really performing for a full house in a theatre that is gigantic compared to the multiplex, his performance is notably large.  On film, he comes across sometimes as over acting, and not just eccentric and a little slow, but perhaps mentally challenged as well.  Still, with the balance of everyone around him and some truly beautiful vocal work on his part during the musical numbers, his excesses are easily overlooked.

The rest of the cast comes off exceedingly well.  Montego Glover has starlet written all over her - the camera LOVES her.  Cass Morgan's work on the details of her character are much more evident close up, and the broadness of Derrick Baskin, J. Bernard Calloway, James Monroe Iglehart and Michael McGrath are even more delicious on the big screen.  And the ensemble is vastly talented as they dance and sing in a wide variety of styles as the score calls for.

The film, directed by Don Roy King manages to capture most of the theatricality of Christopher Ashley's stage direction, and leaves me wondering all over again how Sergio Trujillo's spectacular choreography wasn't even nominated for a Tony Award last year.  Memphis is one dancin' extravaganza as this film captures so beautifully.

Soon, this will be available on DVD, and I will buy it.  And I will be attending the filmed version of the New York Philharmonic concert of Stephen Sondheim's Company.  I encourage all of you to do the same.  Supporting this kind of union of two art forms is a win for everyone.

(Photos of the Broadway production by Joan Marcus)

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  1. I totally agree about the importance of supporting theatre at the movies. I didn't see Memphis but I did catch Frankenstein from NT Live, which I really enjoyed. I'm also planning to see Company and The Importance of Being Earnest. It gives people who love theatre but don't live near New York or London a chance to experience these shows. And I think it does help build buzz, ether for a tour or to see something when you do take that NYC vacation. The more exposure the better!

  2. This is a great trend and I hope it lives beyond MEMPHIS. I've seen the screening and it was outstanding. I just wish other Broadway shows would embrace these kinds of events. Now we're all just waiting for the DVD and the upcoming tour!


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