Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews
 

Memphis – Broadway Musical Review 

 

MORE MUSICALS LIKE THIS ONE COULD BOOST BROADWAY’S BOX OFFICE

 

picture - MemphisTheater Review

by William Gooch

published October 25, 2009

 

Memphis

now playing at the Shubert Theatre

open run

 

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 racial equality.

 

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 pop.

 

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 Woman.”

 

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

 

 
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