Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 19, 2009
Memphis Book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro. Music and lyrics by David Bryan. Based on a concept by George W. George. Director Christopher Ashley. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo. Music Producer/Music Supervisor Christopher Jahnke. Scenic design by David Gallo. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Ken Travis. Projection design by David Gallo & Shawn Sagady. Hair & wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Fight Director Steve Rankin. Starring Chad Kimball, Montego Glover, with Derrick Baskin, J. Bernard Calloway, James Monroe Iglehart, Michael McGrath, Cass Morgan, Jennifer Allen, Brad Bass, Tracee Beazer, Kevin Covert, Hillary Elk, Bryan Fenkart, Dionne Figgins, Rhett George, John Jellison, 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, Dan’yelle Williamson, Charlie Williams.
But if DiPietro (book and lyrics) and Bryan (music and lyrics), working from a concept by George W. George, had to pick only one to get right, they made the right choice. Their depiction of the stormy relationship of Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), an obscure screw-up whose belief in black artists’ potential popularity catapults him to airwave celebrity, and Felicia Farrell (Montego Glover), whom Huey “discovers” and promotes to superstardom, is thoughtful and balanced. Both fight against racism in different ways: he by openly defying his skeptical bosses and prejudicial mother (Cass Morgan) and giving Felicia more chances than anyone (including herself) thinks she deserves, she by resisting her prejudicial brother, Delray (J. Bernard Calloway), and giving Huey the chances he needs to try to make good on his promises.
This forces the two of them to accept and conquer adversity, and thus come to see each other as clearly as they see themselves. That’s a strong dramatic choice, which not only sets up the tension of impossible-to-meet expectations, but lays the framework for their union’s bittersweet course - which, in the South in the 1950s, is hardly guaranteed a happy ending. Huey and Felicia are both willing to risk almost everything, and that gives their story an urgency and a poignancy it could all too easily not have.
The reason for that being that even when their story works, it’s not exactly challenging. When Felicia cuts her first record and can only afford to press a single 45, of course her achievement has to end in human-influenced tragedy. When Huey summons the courage to propose, their happiness is ruined by an attack that sends Felicia to the emergency room and Huey out of the good graces of most of the black people he’s worked so hard to impress. And can it be long before Delray’s mute bartender, Gator (Derrick Baskin), who stopped speaking when he saw his father lynched, pipes up to stall a bar fight? Or before opposing bigots Mama and Delray finally and tearfully make a pact to get along?
If the romance is able to overcome these treatments, the scenes that show how Huey builds his and Felicia careers from nothing to trailblazing R&B phenomena is considerably more stalled by its obviousness. He wins over the hostile crowd his first night in Delray’s club by singing “The Music of My Soul,” about how he rebelled against his father and found the sound he loved. Huey’s about to be fired from his job in a department store unless he can sell five records over the next hour. Perry Como puts customers to sleep, but Wailin’ Joe’s “Scratch My Itch” inspires pandemonium - Huey sells 29 discs and is promptly given the boot for peddling “race records.” Later, when trying to score his first DJ job, Huey takes over from the irredeemably white Buck Wiley, puts on the grooving “Everybody Wants to Be Black on Saturday Night,” and the phones don’t stop ringing.
All of these developments are simpleminded dramatic shorthand, which heavily downplays the America-changing accomplishments that should mirror what Huey and Felicia experience personally. Huey is based loosely on Dewey Phillips, who first introduced mainstream Memphis audiences to Elvis Presley but is largely forgotten today (his career spanned barely 10 years, ending in 1959). The show’s simplifying his role, and dumbing down the public’s inculcation of black music by making it so irresistibly inevitable that everyone accepts it the instant they hear it, cheapens the real advances that were made. It’s easy to mock Perry Como today, but he was extraordinarily popular in the 1950s - wouldn’t Huey’s overcoming that juggernaut prove a stronger, more musical story? The 1981 hit Dreamgirls found a way.
Memphis isn’t that show in the plot department, but approaches it in terms of the score’s respectful appropriateness, which stops considerably short of the kind of kitschy, gummy pastiche found in shows like Hairspray. Bryan, a member of Bon Jovi, works cozily in this idiom, delivering far better tunes than can currently be heard in his 80s-camp Off-Broadway musical, The Toxic Avenger. None of the songs is particularly memorable on its own, but cumulatively construct a lush black-meets-white soundscape. There are gospels and spirituals (“Make Me Stronger,” “Say a Prayer”), guttural confrontations (“She’s My Sister”), anthems of varying sorts (“Love Will Stand When All Else Falls,” “Memphis Lives in Me”), and bubble-popping hits ranging in style from radio soup to TV variety show marshmallow.
Everything has been smoothly directed by Christopher Ashley, and hotly choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, demonstrating some of his best work yet in the slides, leaps, and jives that show how black’s and white’s dances were merging just as their music was. David Gallo’s scenic design is a utilitarian, not-always-attractive studio-meets-back-alley design that’s given a considerable boost by Gallo’s projections (designed with Shawn Sagady), Paul Tazewell’s vivid costumes, and Howell Binkley’s lights.
Kimball has proven himself a valuable theatrical fixture over the last decade, whether as Milky-White in the 2002 revival of Into the Woods, the young Proust in My Life With Albertine, the immature father-to-be in Baby at the Paper Mill Playhouse, or in less visible roles in less viable shows like Good Vibrations and Lennon. But he’s always demonstrated an easy naturalness that blends innocence with sly calculation. He’s able to employ almost none of that here - he hides behind a three-foot-thick hillbilly accent that’s probably supposed to sound uneducated, but just sounds sloppy. This makes it very difficult for Kimball to define Huey in more than one color at a time - he moves from pioneer to victim to statistic with the rapidity of randomly spinning the radio dial.
After a few scenes of this, Huey starts feeling more like a parody than a real person - a problem Memphis also experiences when it’s least willing to take all of its own story seriously. But if, like Kimball, the show falters along the way, it ultimately succeeds even through its clichés in its lively presentation, celebration, and critique of the personal and professional obstacles on the road to a fully integrated America.