Memphis Review: The Birth of Rock and Roll Yet Again
“Memphis” is an energetic, tuneful, talent-filled but disappointing new Broadway musical about a radio disc-jockey in the 1950’s who helps forge a powerful new music called rock and roll. It is clearly inspired by the real-life story of the rise and fall of Dewey Phillips. The number one DJ in Memphis, Phillips was one of the first to play rhythm and blues music (so-called race music) on a mainstream (i.e. white) station. But he is best known as the radio interviewer who asked the 19-year-old Elvis Presley what (segregated) high school he had attended, in order to clue in listeners that Presley was white. The story of race and rock and roll, in other words, isn’t simple. Its retelling yet again in “Memphis” is a missed opportunity to say something original or insightful.
It is a Saturday night in 1952 on Beale Street — which half a century later touts itself as the home of the blues and birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll — and Crazy Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), with a porkpie hat, loud shirt and reckless manner, crashes Delray’s underground juke joint to hear Miss Felicia Farrell (Montego Glover) belt out the blues. The presence of a white face brings festivities abruptly to a halt.
“This is Beale Street,” Felicia tells him. “We don’t see many white folks ‘round here…So maybe you should leave.”
“Tell ya the truth, ma’am, I ain’t never had the nerve to come in a club like this before. But I heard you singin’…and I wanted to see if you looked as pretty as you sound” — cluing the crowd to head quickly to the exit to avoid trouble.
Huey sets out to get Felicia on the radio – and to get Felicia. That he is successful in both is a given — this is a Broadway musical — but his two aims eventually collide.
On paper, “Memphis” might sound as if it strives to capture the racial climate in its time and place, a place that in the next decade would be the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: There is a beating by rednecks, disapproval by bigoted and fearful family members, the panic that accompanies the longing. On stage, though, the interracial romance plays like a half-developed and barely believable subplot. Both Huey and the show’s creators seem far more engaged in how he becomes the top DJ, and in his role on radio and television in creating and promoting rock and roll.
In a similar way, the plot itself seems almost beside the point, the point being the original score by Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan, a mix of blues, gospel, soul, pop and 50′s style rock and roll (which a couple of the characters call just “Negro blues sped up”). If the melodies didn’t strike me as especially memorable, the musical numbers are the work of a pro, each an entertainment sung full blast and artfully staged, with a playful use of David Gallo’s set and Howell Binkley’s flashy lighting. There is some wonderfully athletic choreography by Sergio Trujillo (who won a Tony Award for his choreography of “Jersey Boys”), which makes an exciting spectacle out of what might otherwise have been hokey scenes of the new music bringing together the white and black teenagers of Memphis.
The two leads, both veterans of Broadway, Chad Kimball (most notably “Into The Woods,” least noticeably, “Lennon”) and Montego Glover (“The Color Purple”) clearly have the chops to put over their musical numbers, and there are other stand-out performers, such as James Monroe Inglehart, who plays Bobby, an oversized janitor who becomes a sexy singing sensation, shaking and rocking it to the roof in “Big Love.” When the coma-inducing crooner Perry Como (Brad Bass) singing “Summer Heart,” literally falls through the floor, with Wailin Joe (John Eric Parker) popping up in his place, gyrating through “Scratch My Itch” — and whenever a slick-haired, shiny-suited trio appears somewhere unexpected on the stage — it carries the kind of joyful jolt that viscerally explains why rock and roll took off in the first place.
It is more difficult for me to assess anybody’s acting ability, or such a vague concept as chemistry, except to say that the dramatic scenes are the least successful part of the show. I suspect the flaw is in the writing; neither the characters nor the scenes are fleshed out enough. It is difficult to understand why Huey acts in a way that seems to go against the best interests of the woman he says he loves, and what it is about such a self-centered, self-destructive character that attracts Felicia.
“Memphis” is in no way witless (which I realize does not sound like a rousing endorsement – can you see them putting that in their ads? “In no way witless! – Jonathan Mandell, The Faster Times”). But the willingness of “Memphis” to travel in a workmanlike way over ground already tread elsewhere, including in such Broadway musicals as “Hairspray” and “Dreamgirls” (which is having a brief run at the Apollo next month) was something of a surprise: The creators of “Memphis,” Joe DiPietro (who also wrote the long-running off-Broadway comedy, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) and Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, are the same team that put together the mischievous Off-Broadway musical “The Toxic Avenger.”
Here is a song from “Memphis” sung by Chad Kimball entitled “Memphis Lives in Me” (sung outdoors at a promotional event before the show opened):
To repeat some of the lyrics:
There’s a town that I call home
Where all the streets are paved with soul
Down on Beale, there’s a honky-tonk bar…
Like a sad, old melody
Tears you up but sets you free
That’s how Memphis lives in me.
A fine pop ballad. Now compare that to the opening number of “Toxic Avenger”:
There’s a place between Heaven and Hell
Don’t need a map
Just follow the smell
A place filled with filthy air
A place full of dark despair
A place you have no prayer
A place called –
It is as if their off-Broadway musical is parodying the very kind of Broadway musical that they themselves have created.
at the Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th Street
Book by Joe DiPietro, music by David Bryan, lyrics by DiPietro and Bryan. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Choreography by Sergio Trujillo.
Huey Calhoun – Chad Kimball
Felicia Farrell – Montego Glover
Delray Farrell – J. Bernard Calloway
Gladys Calhoun – Cass Morgan
Bobby – James Monroe Iglehart
Gator – Michael Benjamin Washington
With: Jennifer Allen, Brad Bass, Tracee Beazer, Kevin Covert, Hillary Elk, Bryan Fenkart, Dionne Figgins, Rhett George, John Hellison, Candice Monet McCall, Sydney Morton, Vivian Nixon, John Eric Parker, Jermaine R. Rembert, LaQuet Sharnell, Ephraim M. Sykes, Cary Tedder, Danny Tidwell, Daniel J. Watts, Katie Webber, Charlie Williams, Dan’yelle Williamson.
Sets, David Gallo; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Ken Travis; musical direction, Kenny J. Seymour; musical supervision, Christopher Jahnke; orchestrations, Darryl Waters; projection design, Shawn Sagady, Gallo; fight director, Steve Rankin; production stage manager, Frank Hartenstein. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Ticket prices range from $41.50 to $121.50
BUY TICKETS TO MEMPHIS
Photographs by Joan Marcus courtesy The Harman Group
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