Shubert Theatre, NYC
The state of the musical theatre is enjoying a harmonic convergence of factors. Kids, generally the least relevant portion of the target market, have been weaned on musicals from Disney and TV shows like Glee. There has been a happy spate of ambitious musicals that have tapped into the exploding interest in music. Although the record business is heading sadly for a cliff, more people are enjoying more music than ever before.
Memphis is one of several musicals that rely on strong performances, a thoughtful storyline and compelling music. Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) teamed with David Bryan (music and lyrics) for a look at the earliest days of rock and roll, set against the musically and racially segregated eponymous city. The musical was workshopped in Seattle and at the venerable La Jolla Playhouse. The effort shows, this is a tremendous production. It was recently justifiably awarded four Tony awards, including best musical. Don’t let Bryan’s status as a founding member of Bon Jovi deter you.
Chad Kimball plays Huey Calhoun, a pasty faced white kid in love with black music (picture Phil Collins in a fedora, with far more solid musical chops). Huey’s odd gait and patter belie a deep affection for RnB, as first shown by his cool reception when he saunters into a basement nightclub on Beale Street. Soon becomes clear his affection for the club’s music and the owner’s sister. The sister Felicia is played admirably by Montego Glover. Her brother Delray is played by the formidable J. Bernard Calloway.
Although the storyline seems familiar (and might seem predictable to anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the roots of rock and roll), the production never slows down.
Huey takes the controls of a whitebread radio station during the DJ’s bathroom break. Pat Boone disappears and soon a Little Richard – style song (“Scratch My Itch”) is spinning on the turntable and lighting up the phone lines. Instead of the station owner’s expectation of audience outrage, the clamor for more of Huey’s music is loud and clear. Ratings soar, advertising dollars flow and Huey is given free rein of the playlist. He even changes the call letters to WRNB. Songs like “Everybody Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night” increase Huey’s audience.
His courtship of Felicia is less successful. Although the nightclub denizens accept that Huey’s zeal for the music is genuine, Delray tries to keep Huey at bay, belting out a stern warning in “She’s My Sister.”
The inordinately long 90 minute first act breezes by, and it is a hard act to follow. Racial tensions in the 1950s run deep, even if many white folks are enjoying black music. Huey’s star nonetheless continues to rise and he helps Felicia gain visibility with her singing. The inevitable clash comes to a head when Huey is faced with the conundrum of softening his look for national TV (the network suit says that a Richard Clark in Philadelphia shows equal promise). Huey can eschew his outlandish wardrobe and don a more traditional look, which to him means looking like an undertaker. But more crucially, he can lose the black dancers in favor of white dancers. Felicia is about to break through on a national scale, but that would mean moving to NYC. There, the couple could live together openly.
Should Huey stay or should he go?
There hinges the dramatic tension.
The ensemble cast is superb, buttressing with aplomb the leads actors’ singing and dancing. The set (designed by David Gallo) moves nimbly from dingy backwoods radio station to gritty nightclub to sleek recording studio. The band is crisp, anchored by a sharp brass section that punches up nearly every number.
This is a musical that works on many levels, and is a great introduction for those unaware of the intricate birth of rock and roll. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird the musical is also a wonderful way to teach kids about the harsh nature of segregation in the 1950s South. The kudos Memphis has received elsewhere are well deserved.