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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

An uneven Journey to Memphis at the 5th Avenue Theatre

Memphis
Montego Glover and Chad Kimball
Many pluses and a few significant minuses make the current aimed-for-Broadway musical Memphis an uneven musical journey. On the credit side are Christopher Ashley's solid direction of a diverse and talented company, Serge Trujillo's rambunctious and electric choreography, and zesty and eye-popping sets, costumes and projections. Bon Jovi veteran David Bryan has composed a slew of catchy and rousing melodies, though his lyrics (co-credited to book writer Joe DiPietro) are poorly served by a muddy and over-amplified sound design (a frequent complaint at the 5th but one that can surely be rectified for Broadway). The big question is whether DiPietro's book (based on a concept by George W. George), an original story about an unlikely romance between a crazy white hayseed musician and a gorgeous and talented young African American singer set in the Segregated South of the 1950s, can be fine-tuned sufficiently to make for an emotionally satisfying saga.

DiPietro's central male character Huey Calhoun is a uniquely flawed leading man, not as unlikable as the always problematic Joey Evans in Pal Joey but not someone with enough really positive features for an audience to warm to either. And when, after discovering his own passion for rhythm and blues in an all Negro Beale Street club, he meets and falls for the club owner's songstress sister Felicia, and it is difficult to understand what she sees in him to make their pairing into a years long romance. This despite the committed and vibrant performances of Chad Kimball as Huey and Montego Glover as Felicia. Kimball makes Huey an eccentric whirlwind of passion, and ambition that even his own disapproving Mama (the excellent Cass Morgan) has trouble loving. As he rises to the heap of hometown fame as a disc jockey and television host, Kimball, a Seattle native, is a true triple threat, and sells such songs as "The Music of My Soul," "Radio," "Crazy Little Huey" and "Tear Down the House"for all they are worth. Glover's Felicia is a warm, sympathetic and wise beyond her years Southern black woman whose ill-advised (and too open for the times) romance takes its physical and emotional toll on her. Yet she still parlays a career beyond Memphis, something Huey's bizarre behavior will never allow him. Her renditions of "Colored Woman," "Someday" and "Love Will Stand When All Else Fails" are highlights of the production.

As Felicia's protective brother Delray, J. Bernard Calloway makes a strong and forceful impression (for the final Seattle performances Melvin Abston assumes the role); Derrick Baskin mines great depth of emotion as Gator, a mute bartender who regains his voice and takes the stage leading the act one closing "Say A Prayer"; Broadway veteran Allen Fitzpatrick mines some comedic gold in the song-less role of bemused radio station owner Mr. Simmons; and James Monroe Inglehart steals the show as Bobby, a radio station janitor turned singer with the aptly titled "Big Love."

David Gallo's sets and projection designs with Shawn Sagady and Howell Binkley's lighting designs skillfully transport the audience to the varied Memphis locales, and Paul Tazewell's costumes capture the era effortlessly. Darryl Waters contributes authentic and exciting orchestrations.

Memphis won crowds and acclaim in San Diego (it is a co-production of La Jolla Playhouse and the 5th Avenue Theatre) and Seattle audiences are clearly taken by it as well. The tougher task of sustaining a long run on Broadway is hard to predict, but it is a show you want to see succeed, and, with some seriously thought out tweaking of the central romance, it just might.

Memphis runs through February 15, 2009 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue, downtown Seattle. Tickets: $22-$81; 206-625-1900, 888-584-4849, www.5thavenue.org.



- David Edward Hughes



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