BOTTOM LINE: A new musical with lots of singing, lots of dancing, and lots of joy.
Rarely, while watching a musical, do I experience a 180 degree turn in opinion. I can generally tell what I'm getting myself into and predict if I will enjoy the experience within the first half-hour. Memphis, the new Broadway musical about race relations and rock and roll in the 1950s, successfully changed my originally not-so-excited mind and pulled me into its charm halfway through the production. Had I written this review after the show's first 60 minutes, I promise it would've been different than what you're reading now.
This isn't to say that Memphis isn't a good show, it was just really hard for me to accept its offering at first. See, the story is one that's been told countless times before (at least in the past few decades). Racial tension abounds in a southern town and an unlikely hero, in this case Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), brings the community together by taking a risk and opening everyone's eyes to the possibilities that lie beyond bigotry. In Memphis, Huey is desperate to be a disc jockey and he passionately loves blues or "race music" as its known. He finds a black club and weasels his way in with his charm and genuine love of the music they play. There he meets a singer named Felicia Farrell (Montego Glover) and he vows to get her on the radio (partly because he loves her and partly because he legitimately thinks she's talented). Bubbling tension and racial divides ensue. And this is just the first fifteen minutes.
See, Memphis doesn't do much in the way of exposition, immediately jumping into the plot and pushing through several important moments breezily to fit all of the crucial details into the show. In the show Urinetown, Little Sally tells the audience "nothing can kill a show like too much exposition." I suppose that goes both ways. About halfway through the production, when I finally knew the characters enough to understand their motivations as moderately realistic (rather than contrived for the sake of musical theatre on a Broadway stage), the humanity and soul of the show really shone through the glossy Broadway exterior and I was able to watch the performers as people, rather than over-exaggerated stereotypes in 1950's costuming. This humanity is also assisted by the storytelling. In Act II, decisions are made that are from places of internal conflict; they are complex, unpredictable and much more interesting to watch.
Once the superficial musical theatre veil was lifted, I was sucked in to the story and I felt the joy permeating from the stage seep into the audience. The audience, reserved and somewhat unresponsive in the first half of the show, was audibly impressed and exhilarated by the end. And since the show ends on an upbeat note, there is an optimistic vibe felt throughout the theatre, one that lifts an audience to its feet and is likely to take musical theatre fans to that delightful “happy place” we all know so well.
The cast of Memphis is extraordinary. They aren’t the “names” we’ve grown accustomed to on Broadway these days, and that’s probably a good thing. With ample credits among them, they are full of talent and energy. Although the acting requirements for most of the cast are light, the dancing and singing are certainly not. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is athletic and exciting, performed so excellently by this ensemble. Memphis is a song and dance show, and the cast can do both.
Kimball and Glover are a perfect fit as the show’s male and female leads, respectively. They have both been involved with the production since the beginning, performing at the La Jolla Playhouse in August 2008 and then at Seattle’s 5th Avenue in January 2009 before moving to Broadway this past fall. They embrace their characters and when they’re given the moments to express their deepest feelings, they permeate a thoughtful reality at a really tough time in American history. I’m sure this is the start of big things for the both of them.
Memphis is written by Joe DiPietro with music by David Bryan (Bon Jovi’s keyboardist). DiPietro and Bryan are the team that created the off-Broaday hit The Toxic Avenger and the two have copious theatrical credits reaching back some time. Although it’s clear they borrowed from Hairspray and Dreamgirls (unless the similarities are merely obligations for the genre and theme), Memphis is no doubt an original production. So much new theatre is just rehashed versions of previously told stories; it’s always refreshing to see something unique. The music is also pretty great, with Felicia’s hit single “Someday” sounding like the missing track from any 1950's Doo Wop album.
An emotional ride indeed (although it takes a bit to get going), Memphis is a soulful way to spend an evening. With a powerful cast, a fabulous band (they’re on stage for a bit in Act II) and an exciting score, it’s an upbeat and engaging show, to be sure. The audience was loving it by the end and I’ll admit I was bopping right along in my own seat. It seems like Memphis was Broadway-bound from the beginning, and was created around the idea of the biggest and brightest musical theatre possibilities. It’s certainly a choice (and a potentially lucrative one at that), but I can’t help but wish it would’ve been a smaller, off-Broadway production first, where the grit and reality of making ones dreams comes true could have resonated more fully throughout the experience. If Memphis weren’t so sanitary, perhaps the story could resonate more quickly.
(Memphis plays at the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2pm and 8pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $41.50-$131.50 and can be purchased at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. For more show info visit memphisthemusical.com.)