Regional Reviews: San Francisco
TheatreWorks Production of Memphis
TheatreWorks, in conjunction with North Shore Music Theatre, is presenting David Bryan and Joe DiPietro's Memphis. The musical was first workshopped at TheatreWorks in the spring of 2002, and a production was presented at the North Shore Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts last year. David Bryan and Joe DiPietro have changed about 35 percent of the score and scenes, especially in the second act. Also, a song and scene were added about two weeks before the opening. This is still a work in progress and there will undoubtedly be further changes if the show goes to New York.
Memphis is loosely based on the life of Memphis DJ Dewey Philips, one of the first white disc jockeys who dared to play African American music for his white listeners in the 1950s. The real record spinner is just a footnote in the history of rock 'n' roll, and he died a forgotten man.
Huey is a frenzied, bombastic individual who probably could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo. He talks his way into becoming a DJ at a local white music radio show where Perry Como and Patti Page records are primarily played, with a few Roy Rogers tunes for the country folks. Huey mixes the music of white America with tracks of rhythm and blues melodies, becoming an instant success with the teenagers (much to the disapproval of their parents). Huey also promotes a talented black singer named Felicia (Montego Glover) whom he loves. When the relationship goes public, things get very dicey in segregated Memphis. Huey is beaten by a bunch of racist thugs, leading to a dependency on pain pills.
Television comes to Memphis and radio stations try everything to get ratings, including a crazy hillbilly show featuring a trio singing "Hillbilly Honeymoon" with some very crazy lyrics by Joe DiPietro. Huey creates a teen dance show with good old rock 'n' roll music and it is an instant success, becoming a hot property for national television. At the same time, a guy named Dick Clark is developing the same type show on the east coast. Both are in stiff competition for a national spot.
Huey himself is spiraling downward with the combination of pain pills and booze. He has become completely unpredictable and delusional. He blows his chance for a national spot by kissing his African American lover - and asking her to marry him - on live TV. It is just a little too early in America's civil rights movement for this kind of "behavior." Huey is all but forgotten after he loses the local television show, and this makes for a couple of dreary scenes toward the end of the musical. The new song, "Memphis Lives in Me," is a ballad in which Huey reflects on his past, and various characters from his past form a chorus. It is a mundane song that does not help those final scenes.
The producers attempt to give the show an upbeat ending with a group of Huey's old friends throwing him a surprise party. The chorus gives their all in the rousing song "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll," and this gives the audience an ending with a dynamic beat.
David Bryan, a former keyboard player and founding member of the rock group Bon Jovi, has composed a rocking score that combines gospel and music of the '50s; he has created a period style with a modern twist. The music should appeal to '50s music fans and the younger audience, since there is modern beat. The musical makes a rousing start with a great gospel sound in "The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll," sung to the hilt by Derrick B. Baskin and J. Bernard Calloway, with Chad Kimball and Montego Glover joining in on "The Music of My Soul." Many of the songs are excellent, including the jumpy "I Can't Stop This Dance," as the whole cast gets groovin' to the music with a wildly comical dance. There is even a typical Broadway comedy song sung by Reverend Fletcher (David Curley) called "Sin, Degradation, and Communism" that has witty lyrics. Also fun is the handling of the song called "Dick Clark," sung by Kimball and Calloway. "Hillbilly Honeymoon" breaks the audience up with its audacious lyrics as performed by Molly Bell, David Curley on the washboard and John Elliott Kirk on the one string bass instrument.
Chad Kimball (Milky White in the Broadway revival of Into the Woods plus the original Huey at North Shore) has excess energy as he bounces about the stage. His has the movement and manner of a Jerry Lee Lewis, and I could not help thinking of Dennis Quaid's portrayal of the rock star. Kimball has the posture, the pointing arm, the arched back and a cute little laugh that comes out about every paragraph. He moves constantly about the stage and only holds still when Huey is downtrodden in the second act. Kimball has a good, powerful voice and his good ol' boy Tennessean accent is right on the mark.
Montego Glover (recreating her role from North Shore, and she was in the NYC Dreamgirls 20th Anniversary Concert) is a real find as Huey's girlfriend Felicia. She has powerful vocal chops in blues beat ballads and brings down the house with "I Can Shake the Blues." She scorches the stage in "Colored Women."
Local talent also gets my share of applause, including Bob Greene (The Big Bang and Funny Girl) playing the conservative radio station manager. James Monroe Iglehart, who was sedate as a member of the quintet in the TheatreWorks production of Little Night Music, really rocks out in "Two Minutes of Your Love." His wild dance reminds me of the late Michael Jeter and his fantastic number in Grand Hotel, rubber legs and all. Susan Mansur makes a very good mother of Huey. She looks and acts like Vicky Lawrence in Carol Burnett's "Mama's Family" TV series.
Choreography by Todd L. Underwood is very 1950s, including the diverse set of dances that were performed during the early days of "American Bandstand." His choreography for "I Can't Stop This Dance" is hilarious. His dances lend an upbeat feeling to the whole production. Gabriel Barre's direction is excellent with great blocking and swift and flawless scenes in the first act. The second act still needs work, as there are some dry spots as the DJ swiftly goes down hill from pills and booze. Barre wisely put in an upbeat song at the end to give the musical a much needed lift. The audience leaves on a great high.
Memphis runs through February 15th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit theatreworks.org.
TheatreWorks' next production will be Arthur Miller's All My Sons at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto opening on March 3rd.