BWW Reviews: MEMPHIS Is An Electric, Rousing Must-See
Original musicals are tough to come by nowadays. For every mammoth hit like Wicked or Book of Mormon, there's a short-lived flop like First Date or Glory Days. And then there are shows like Memphis that wind up somewhere in the middle. The show picked up 4 2010 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score, and had a nearly three year run on Broadway. That's not bad, but judging by the current national tour currently playing Bass Concert Hall, Memphis deserved much better. With an exhilarating blues and rock score, breathtaking choreography, and more than a few astounding performers, Memphis is a massive crowd-pleaser.
The musical--which features a book by Joe DiPietro, music by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, and lyrics by both-tells the story of Huey Calhoon (Joey Elrose), an illiterate and energetic hillbilly whose rebellious nature and affection for "black music" makes him the most listened to DJ in 1950s Memphis. Huey also launches the recording career of nightclub singer Felicia Farrell (Jasmin Richardson), and despite segregation laws and the difference in their skin colors, Huey and Felicia fall in love.
While the show has some of the same problems as other "white person solves racism" stories (namely the occasional sense that the premise itself trivializes history), DiPetro's book tackles most of those problems head on. The biggest asset DiPetro has in his arsenal is his tone and approach to the story. People are bound to compare Memphis to Hairspray, given they both involve themselves with race relations, early rock and roll, and a plucky central character, but there is one major difference. Hairspray is campy, light, and comedic, while Memphis is grounded, real, and occasionally dark. Yes, there are plenty of funny moments, but they're balanced out by unexpected moments that make the entire audience gasp.
DiPetro's smart and original book is well paired with Bryan's lively and memorable score. Bryan doesn't just borrow blues and early rock sounds. He creates several songs that fit right in with classics of the time. Sadly, the lyrics aren't always up to par with the book and score. Most of the character-defining anthems are strong lyrically, but some of the other tunes have very pedestrian turns of phrase, like "I swear right now, I swear right here, I'm gonna make this poverty disappear."
Thankfully, when the writing gets dull, the aesthetics of the production more than compensate. Director Christopher Ashley deftly navigates the emotional highs and lows of the show while keeping the energy level ratcheted up. Sergio Trujillo's choreography is athletic and spectacular to watch, largely due to the exceptionally talented and enthusiastic ensemble. The set by David Gallo is appropriately dark and dirty (black clubs in Memphis circa 1950 weren't exactly in the best part of town, you know). While the set may be intentionally drab, it gives a nice contrast to Paul Tazewell's dazzling costumes and Howell Binkley's vibrant and flashy lighting.
But what truly makes this touring production great is the cast. As Huey, Joey Elrose takes a character who could easily come off as annoying of off-putting (rent Memphis: Direct from Broadway, staring the original Broadway cast's Chad Kimball if you don't know what I mean) and makes him charming and immensely likeable. Elrose has it all. His strong singing voice shines through the character's southern twang, his dance skills are impressive, his comedic abilities are incredible, and his ability to create a fully realized character is undeniable. Jasmin Richardson is just as successful with her role. While Felicia could come off as wooden, flat, and someone dim (rent Memphis: Direct from Broadway, staring the original Broadway cast's Montego Glover if you don't know what I mean), Richardson is a force of nature. Her vocal prowess is astounding. There are moments when a young Whitney Houston comes to mind, particularly when Richardson gets a chance to let loose and belt some money notes. In the acting department, Richardson shines, especially in the more dramatic scenes. When Elrose and Richardson share the stage together, the chemistry and love between their characters is mesmerizing.