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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Memphis and Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits


Kimber Sprawl and Ensemble
Photo by Mark Garvin
"Is this a true story?" said the woman sitting to my right during intermission at a recent performance of Memphis at the Walnut Street Theatre.

"I don't know," said her companion. "Feels like it could be."

No, Memphis is not a true story—though its central character is based on a real person (Dewey Phillips, a disc jockey who brought black rhythm and blues to white teenagers on Memphis radio in the 1950s; he was also the first person to play Elvis Presley's music on the radio). And the authors of Memphis deserve credit for exploring the tension between races and generations that led to a revolution in music and culture. But Memphis, while it has some enjoyable music and some good performances, doesn't go far enough. It's not a bad show, but neither its music nor its story are quite strong enough to make it a special experience.

Memphis opens in 1952 in an underground Beale Street blues club where a white ne'er-do-well named Huey Calhoun has gone in search of a good time. The black clientele is ready to clear out when they see him, but Huey assures them, via a bluesy ballad, that he has an affinity for their music ("The Music of My Soul"). Pretty soon Huey talks himself into a job playing R&B on the radio; he also talks his way into the heart of Felicia, the nightclub's sexy singer, who soon finds herself with a burgeoning recording career. But both his job and his romance upset the establishment, and pretty soon Huey and Felicia are subject to racist taunts—and worse. The show chronicles the couple's attempts to rise above all the hate and live a life full of love and music.

The story of Huey and Felicia is an inspirational one, but most of the time Memphis feels less than inspired. The issues it raises are important ones; when Huey argues with Felicia's brother/manager Delray about white people appropriating black music, they're dealing with an issue that's still relevant today. But such issues take a backseat to the Huey/Felicia romance, and it's a romance that's hard to get involved with, especially since Huey never seems to love Felicia as much as he loves himself. Simply put, he comes across as too dumb and arrogant to care about. Ambitious, single-minded Felicia deserves a better life, and in the end she finds that better life, though not in a way that's dramatically satisfying.

The songs are Memphis' strongest feature, with music by David Bryan (keyboardist for rock superstars Bon Jovi) and lyrics co-written by Bryan with Joe DiPietro (who also wrote the book). There are a lot of toe-tapping numbers here that evoke everything from girl groups to Little Richard to Gospel. (Huey's big numbers actually sound more like the Gospel-influenced sound of early '70s Elton John, though that's not a bad thing.) These are pretty good songs. But while the songs show off their influences, they never transcend those influences to become something memorable and distinctive in their own right (in the way that the songs in Hairspray, a show with similar themes and atmosphere, does). And the way Bryan builds almost every other song to a big dramatic crescendo gets tiresome after a while.

Director/choreographer Richard Stafford keeps things peppy and interesting, and Douglass C. Lutz's band makes the most of Bryan's music. But the performance I saw needed some tightening up: sound designer David Tempy's mix made the lyrics on the opening number unintelligible, and the vocal harmonies on some numbers (including the unfortunately titled "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night") were ragged. Kimber Sprawl shows off a rich, expressive voice as Felicia, and Philip Michael Baskerville is impressive as Delray. Understudy Christopher DeAngelis filled in for Christopher Sutton in the role of Huey at my performance; DeAngelis sang superbly, though he showed little chemistry with Sprawl. Ron Wisniski earns a lot of laughs as Huey's exasperated boss, and Mary Martello, as Huey's mother, does a terrific job with her big second act number (though her transition from uptight racist to gospel shouter is one of the show's least convincing developments).

That woman sitting in my row was right—Memphis does feel like it could be a true story. It also feels like, with a lot more work, it could be a great musical.

Memphis runs through July 12, 2015, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are priced from $20 to $95 and are available by calling the box office at 800-982-2787, or online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org.



Tracie Higgins, Tony Braithwaite, and Jeffrey Coon
Photo by Mark Garvin
For over thirty years, Forbidden Broadway—Gerard Alessandrini's warped salute to the theatre, full of satires and caricatures of Broadway's biggest hits, biggest stars, and biggest disasters—has been a dependable source of laughs. The latest incarnation, Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits at Ambler's Act II Playhouse, is no exception. For those of us who have seen previous versions, it might be a little too familiar; I really didn't need to see that take-off on Annie where the adorable moppet smokes a cigarette and sings a parody of "Tomorrow" one more time. But that number still gets a big laugh, because, well, it's still funny. And the four-member cast at Act II Playhouse is so gifted and animated that even the most jaded theatregoer will find this version hard to resist.

Elena Camp does the most accurate impressions, including a wailing Idina Menzel, a sneering Chita Rivera, and a wide-eyed Barbra Streisand. Tracie Higgins is a hyper Liza Minnelli and a way-too-glum Bebe Neuwirth. Big-voiced Jeffrey Coon gets to play Enjolras in the Les Misérables number (say, is that red jacket he's wearing the same one he wore when he played Enjolras at the Walnut a few years back?). And Tony Braithwaite, who's also the show's director, camps it up by playing both Carol Channing and Ethel Merman. (Alisa Sickora Kleckner designed the dozens of clever costumes that the actors change into at lightning speed.)

That number with Merman—in which Ethel returns from the dead to lecture the Phantom of the Opera (Coon) on how stars of Broadway's golden age were able to project their voices into huge theatres without amplification—is one of several in which Alessandrini goes beyond joking around to editorialize about what's gone awry with Broadway. And he does it without talking down to his audience. Another highlight is a Fiddler on the Roof spoof called "Ambition" that skewers New York actors who are always striving for the next big job—all of whom, as Braithwaite says, are "doing their best not to end up in Ambler." Sure, these actors make fun of Wicked and Rent, but they don't mind making fun of themselves, either.

Director Braithwaite's production adds two new wrinkles I've never seen in my maybe half a dozen viewings of Forbidden Broadway. First, he cuts the show down to less than 80 minutes, dispensing with the intermission; this is a "Greatest Hits" show, after all. (I would have preferred a longer show.) And second, he gives the accompanist a song of his own—Sonny Leo, the show's musical director and choreographer, steps out from behind the piano to do perhaps the show's most outlandish number. And in a show like this, that's saying something.

It's all done with wit, spirit, low-tech style, and affection for its targets. And while it may be too brief, it has more laughs than most shows twice its length.

Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits runs through June 28, 2015, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Tickets are $34 - $40, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200 or online at www.Act2.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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