Based solely on its book and score, the new Broadway musical Memphis would not rate a recommendation, but the work of writers Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (of Bon Jovi fame) is significantly elevated by a talented cast that transforms less than stellar material into something worthwhile.
Given the recent Broadway successes of Jersey Boys and Hairspray, a musical set during the 1950s in the putative birthplace of rock 'n' roll must have seemed like a sure bet to anyone who cut the production a check; however, despite the show's ticket-selling potential, it took several years for Memphis to make the transfer from regional theaters to New York. Although this interval did little, if anything, to deepen DiPietro and Bryan's take on the musical's obvious focal point, race relations in the American South, it apparently did give the show's two principal actors enough time to figure out how to compensate for the writers' shortsightedness.
Chad Kimball plays Huey Calhoun, a self-described redneck with an all-consuming love for what the larger white community terms "race music." When Huey breezes into an African-American club, he generates the requisite stares of disbelief and suspicion, but after a piano-thumping performance of "The Music of My Soul," a heartfelt ode to African-American rhythm and blues, most of the crowd is at least willing to tolerate his strange presence. The only holdout is Delray (J. Bernard Calloway), the club's owner, a pragmatist unwilling to shake up the status quo for a crazy white boy.
And Huey definitely is certifiable. Despite having lived all of his life in Memphis, Huey never grasps the obvious dangers associated with his behavior. Even when he falls in love with Delray's sister, a sexy chanteuse named Felicia (Montego Glover), Huey fails to recognize that some discretion might be in order, if not for his safety, then certainly for hers.
Rather than grope for the character's nonexistent sanity, the beguiling Kimball, smartly, chooses to empahsize Huey's myriad eccentricities and reckless bravado, which only increase as he implausibly becomes Memphis's Pied Piper of African-American music, first at a local department store, then as the DJ at a center-of-the-dial radio station that formerly only featured white music, and finally as the host of an American Bandstand-style television program; the character might be based on the life of pioneering Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, but, honestly, nobody like Huey Calhoun has ever really existed, at least not for long.
DiPietro and Bryan provide Kimball with some explanation for his character's behavior (Huey, lonely and poor, is a social outsider with nothing to lose), but, for the most part, the writers do not extend the same courtesy to the musical's African-American actors. Glover is particularly shortchanged when it comes to understanding why Felicia eventually reciprocates Huey's love, but, despite this fact, we never doubt that she does love him, thanks entirely to the two actors' remarkably sensitive performances.
Glover and Kimball also belt out every song with the utmost conviction, each turning a mediocre offering ("Colored Woman" and "Memphis Lives in Me" respectively) into near showstoppers. If Memphis is a hit, DiPietro and Bryan owe their two stars some considerable gratitude. Rather than having the cast sing ersatz 1950s African-American music, someone should have considered turning the show into a jukebox musical, because mimicking the writing of artists like Chuck Berry and Dorothy Love Coates is an impossible task.
Other cast members who fare well include: Derrick Baskin as Gator, a part the actor saves from being all treacle and no substance; James Monroe Iglehart as Bobby, a good-hearted janitor who proves big men can move as well as anyone; the aforementioned Calloway who finds nuance in a character that could have been cloyingly one-dimensional; and Cass Morgan as Huey's mother, another character that could have set teeth on edge if not for the actor playing the role.
Perhaps wanting to limit the opportunity for contemplation as much as possible, director Christopher Ashley never lets up on the reins, transitioning from scene to scene with as much speed as coherency allows; still, his brisk staging cannot elide a few of the musical's more egregious missteps, like a scene where Huey and Felicia are beaten up by a gang of whites. It feels tacked on, as if it were added to provide the production with a note of realism, but the scene is so poorly conceived and executed, it is jarring for all the wrong reasons.
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo matches Ashley's intensity, using the eclectic score to show off his own versatility. The dance sequences in Delray's club are particularly enthralling.
Memphis continues its open run at the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street. For more information visit the Memphis website.