Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 11, 2012
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 Adam Pascal, Montego Glover, with Derrick Baskin, J. Bernard Calloway, James Monroe Iglehart, John Jellison, Nancy Opel, Darius Barnes, Ashley Blanchet, Carmen Shavone Borders, Angela C. Brydon, Sam J Cahn, Preston W. Dugger III, Hillary Elk, Sasha Hutchings, Lauren Lim Jackson, Tyrone Jackson, Elizabeth Ward Land, Bryan Langlitz, Kevin Massey, Candice Money McCall, David McDonald, Monette McKay, Andy Mills, Justin Patterson, Jermaine R. Rembert, Ken Robinson, Jamison Scott, Antoine L. Smith, Cody Williams, Dan’yelle Williamson.
You might assume that the actor best known for his darkly screeching vocals in Rent (in which he originated the angsty AIDS-riddled Roger) and Disney's Aida would bring a depth and authenticity to the pushing-the-envelope DJ who spearheaded integrating the Tennessee airwaves in the early 1950s. And you would be correct, because Pascal's precisely anchored yet go-for-broke voice blends elements of classic Broadway belting and the sharp shredding that were poised to replace them in the public's music consciousness in that era. Pascal effortlessly conveys exactly the war the musical documents: old sounds and old prejudices being washed away in favor of greater public tolerance for African Americans and R&B alike.
This is key, because it bridges a dramatic gap that lyricist-librettist DiPietro, composer-lyricist Bryan, and director Christopher Ashley had trouble rendering onstage. Originally, you had no problem accepting the central relationship between the white Huey and his black, bar-singer muse Felicia (played then, as now, by Montego Glover), who together struggle to effect major social change in the pre–Civil Rights South. But the link between that story and the larger one about the evolution of the music business and its impact on the culture, was always shaky, hidden behind nominally appropriate pastiche compositions but possessing little transformative heat. With Pascal on hand, it all makes considerably more sense. Yes, his vocals unite the mindsets, and races in a newly compelling way, but he also presents Huey himself as a crucial participant in that transition.
This is not to say Pascal is perfect. He trips up frequently negotiating the tangles of the rambunctious redneck accent he's using, and abandons it so utterly in every song that closing your eyes might lead you to swear that different actors were speaking and singing the part. Luckily, Pascal's pluses outweigh his minuses, and help build a more satisfying foundation for what's from the start been an enjoyable, if lightweight, musical.
Not much else has changed in the last two and a half years. The only other permanent cast replacements at the performance I attended were Nancy Opel, who's taken over for Cass Morgan as Huey's mother and is solid, but broader than is strictly necessary for the weary, destined-to-be-converted-from-ignorance figure; and John Jellison, brash and brusque as the station owner who gives Huey his big break. Christopher Jackson (of In the Heights) was on for Calloway that night, too, and put a more youthful and energetic spin on a black man who has his own journeys to make toward embracing acceptance. Glover remains a dynamic Felicia, if a bit looser and angrier than she once was, projecting all the verve and star quality both the character and the show require. Other original cast members, including James Monroe Iglehart as a janitor who backs into show business and Derrick Baskin as a bartender Huey inadvertently escorts out of his shell, have maintained their work nicely.
But Pascal has made all their efforts clearer and more efficient by providing them a vision of a more vivid goal. This production now more easily scales its romantic highs and tragic lows, and in doing so gains a richer and more fulfilling sound. Despite the four Tonys (including Best Musical) it's won since its opening, Memphis is still neither ideal, nor the tuneful two-pronged history lesson purists might prefer, but it works and entertains at least as much as it needs to. And when Pascal and company sing the evening's finale, "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll," it's difficult not to realize that under its new star's stewardship, Memphis has stolen back some of its own.