Memphis – Broadway Musical Review
MORE MUSICALS LIKE THIS ONE COULD BOOST BROADWAY’S BOX OFFICE
by William Gooch
published October 25, 2009
now playing at the Shubert Theatre
In case you haven’t noticed, recent Hollywood musicals like 9 to 5,
Xanadu and Legally Blonde have had limited success
packing cash-strapped New Yorkers and out of towners into Broadway’s expensive velvet-veneered seats. Maybe the formula of giving folks
recognizable storylines and jukebox favorites has worn thin on discerning theatergoers. At any rate, if Memphis is any indication of the direction Broadway is heading, audiences will definitely get more bang
for their buck than the sappy, lackluster fare of the past couple of seasons.
Memphis’ storyline centers on Huey
Calhoun, an impoverished white DJ—expertly portrayed by Chad Kimball—who attempts to elevate race music to its proper place in the racially
charged cauldron of segregated Memphis in the 1950s. With his black girlfriend Felicia (Montego
Glover), Huey must navigate the stratified, polarized worlds of black and white prejudices in hopes of manifesting a world of harmony and
That said; Memphis is by no means a handholding, “Kumbaya”/“We are the
World” musical diatribe on equality and the brotherhood of man. Memphis is a thought provoking,
gritty, entertaining look at the cultural forces that forged the musical genre we now call rock and roll.
Joe DiPietro has written dialogue and lyrics that detail, without pontificating, the suffering and pain of Jim Crow
laws and black musicians of that time. There are references to lynching, artistic theft, and southern apartheid. Still, DiPietro does not
weigh down the joint-jumping, hip rolling joy of Memphis with these stark realities.
Most of the musical numbers in Memphis soar. Bon Jovi founding member
David Bryan accurately captures the soul stomping vibrations and grittiness of R&B music, but also infuses rockabilly sentimentalities
into the score, evidenced in the moving “Memphis Lives in Me.”
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo has assembled a cast of some of the most dynamic dancers currently on Broadway. The
ensemble includes Danny Tidwell of So You Think You Can Dance fame and Vivian Nixon and Dionne
Figgins, both stars of the Broadway jukebox musical Hot Feet. Trujillo is able to use these
dancers’ extensive ballet backgrounds to maximum effect in the first half of the show. Mile-high extensions, multiple pirouette turns and
double tours en l’air buoy the truth telling “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night”
and the opening number “Underground.” The choreography in the second half of Memphis is
reminiscent of that former Broadway hit, Hairspray, but without the same crackle and
As Felicia, the unsung songbird, Montego Glover gives a believable, riveting performance. And with songs like “Love
Will Stand When All Else Fails,” she is given the opportunity to use her powerful vocal instrument to its best effect. Although her
beautiful rendering of “Someday” sounds vaguely familiar to Doris Troy’s “Just One Look,” she really pulls out all the stops in “Colored
The role of Huey Calhoun was tailor made for Chad Kimball. Everything in his performance works: the cocky arrogance,
the naïve ambition, the fierce determination, and the romantic simplicity. Kimball has so much to offer, and Memphis is the perfect platform to showcase those gifts.
Superb cast, great choreography and cohesive story aside, Memphis does
have some minor flaws. But so did such iconic musicals as Dreamgirls, Ragtime and the
afore-mentioned Hairspray. Perfection is not the
ultimate goal. By bringing an original, character-driven story with catchy tunes, Memphis
accomplishes what Broadway musicals used to do. Here’s hoping the trend catches on!
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com