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SOUND OFF! Mixed on MEMPHIS, Gung-ho on Two '21 Guns'

Let's take a look at two new recordings of a song from the forthcoming Green Day rock opera AMERICAN IDIOT that is now available on iTunes as well as the cast recording for the new Broadway musical MEMPHIS, which is available at the theatre, stores and on iTunes.

I Wanna Be An American Idiot

"21 Guns" performed by the cast of AMERICAN IDIOT is an impressive fusion of rock and theatre techniques, and proves to be a promising glimpse of what is to come when the show arrives on Broadway this Spring. The opening acoustic section is particularly enchanting, and the song builds powerfully, though it does draw comparisons with RENT on first listening. This show purports to be much more than what many may be expecting and if these recordings of "21 Guns" are any indication of the forthcoming production we are surely in for quite a treat. Another version of the song is also available, featuring Green Day front-man Billie Joe Armstrong in addition to John Gallagher, Jr. and the rest of the cast from the well-received Berkeley Rep tryout production. For me, the cast version of the song is slightly preferable, though the more rocking version is a fine alternative and the contrasting versions reveal the immediacy and interchangeability of the formidable and fantastic score of the show. Both of these entries exhibit the expert arrangements of the songs created by recent Tony-winner for NEXT TO NORMAL, Tom Kitt. This show is quickly turning out to be the most intriguing show of the 2009-2010 season and these records surpass expectations and entice with their equal parts electricity and expressive elegance.

SCORE: 9/10

Steal Your R&B

MEMPHIS - Original Broadway Cast Recording is an energetic preservation of the Motown-influenced score, with the cast giving it their all in nearly every number. Special mention must be made of Chad Kimball, who is very emotional and effective, though the material seems to fail him repeatedly. Montego Glover is also remarkably impressive, traversing the range of material given to her character with ease and grace. The rest of the cast, which also features Derrick Baskin, Michael McGrath and Cass Morgan among many bright talents is also all around wonderful, which is one of the most complimentary things that can be said of the show as it stands on record. I'm sad to report that all in all the songs end up sounding a lot alike, for the most part, and the whole is not the some of its parts despite strong closing songs. It is what it is and if you don't expect excellence it will be mildly entertaining, but, again, it is what it is. For a quick rundown of the score, and what works best, and what does not, we will best be served attacking this entry act by act and track by track and stay on track as we do so to keep this as painless as possible. It's not bad, but it's not great.

Speaking of the best and the worst, the best that can be said about the score is that it is brand new, a feat in itself these days, and contains some exciting acting opportunities which the performers here take with assured, and at times remarkable, palpable relish. The worst that can be said of the score would be that it has PASSING STRANGE syndrome, which is: the nature of the music (read: 50s radio pop and r&b) apparently requires much of the score to suffer from sameness and relentless repeating of phrases or whole choruses over and over as to anesthetize the audience over the course of the evening. There is a tangible relentlessness that can grow slightly aggravating and irritating when you want the songs to soar where they just repeat and burn out. The evidence of this syndrome is everywhere. I suppose the very nature of the show itself precludes any scholarly serious or academic deconstruction of the material, it seems to be merely meant to be a divertissement containing pleasant songs and a few fun dramatic twists, nothing too dense or dour or depressing. Or deep. That does not necessarily imply the entirety of the drama is vapid, but it lacks the true gravitas of the best musical theatre, even the musical comedies or shows which it emulates, such as DREAMGIRLS, RENT and, of course, the songs that the score, and characters, are inspired by which have been represented on Broadway in shows like SMOKEY JOE‘S CAFÉ and ALL SHOOK UP. There is nothing groundbreaking here, nor does that seem to be the intention of the creators given the period time setting and show-business story revolving around a white DJ on black radio in the 50s.

"Underground" is innocuous fun and introduces the characters in an entertaining fashion, but the overall limited vocabulary, both lyrically and musically, becomes painfully evident very early on in the proceedings and robs the show of the true performance showpiece opener that it deserves and requires to work well. In "The Music of My Soul," Kimball is earnest and effortless, seemingly casual while coasting on the myriad melisimas of the melody. "Everybody Wants To Be Black On A Saturday Night" is exactly what you would expect a song in a musical like MEMPHIS to be given what has come before it in this score. "Make Me Stronger" is mildly inventive, though Kimball, Glover and company enliven it quite a bit beyond what it probably deserves. I can't imagine anyone who knows the many, many songs that cover similar themes to these (many in the aforementioned SMOKEY JOE'S CAFÉ) would prefer this material, but such is the treacherous territory the creators tread upon by tackling subject matter such as this and what the audience will expect of them as a result. "Colored Woman" is definitely one of the stronger numbers, and it is put over very well by Miss Glover, proving to be the best song in the first act. J. Bernard Calloway is memorable with "She's My Sister," though here, as with some other moments in the score, one can't help but compare it to DREAMGIRLS, RENT and PASSING STRANGE, though it undoutedly is another highlight of the generally weak first act. Speaking of which, the majority of the first act is resoundingly uneventful and uneven, "Radio" unmemorable where it should be a beacon of light like "Raise Your Voice" in the same spot in the similarly Motown-influenced score by Alan Menken for his movie musicalization of SISTER ACT. More on that some other time. The first act ends lacking any real impact, musical or emotional, largely because of the weak gospel material offered up in "Say A Prayer".  Thankfully, the score gets much better in the second act. 

The second act begins on a remotely more promising note with "Crazy Little Huey" and "Big Love", and James Morgan Inglehart is another excellent and energetic performer in a cast seemingly overloaded with them, but the lack of anything truly touching or tremendous, by any stretch of the imagination, threatens to force us to lower our expectations even further as the songs of the similarity-plagued score wears on. In comparison, the second act is undoubtedly more enjoyable than the first as the specialty numbers provide more exciting opportunities for the performers than most of the material prior to that has done. That is not to say it is any great shakes. "Love Will Stand When All Else Falls", as with some other numbers, sounds exactly like what you would expect it to sound like given the cliché, clunky r&b love song title. The chorus is particularly unneeded in this song, at least on record, and the mish-mash of music makes the song sound even more lugubrious and laborious than it could with a less overwrought arrangement. "Stand Up" brings to mind "I Miss You Old Friend" from DREAMGIRLS to an almost uncomfortable extent and it is at around this point in the proceedings that the sameness of the score starts to set in with the listener and the score becomes tedious, and even slightly shrill at some intervals. It seems as if this is one of those scores best experienced in the theatre as it lacks any true impact on record due to the contributions of the creators, certainly not because of the very best efforts by the wildly talented cast. I wish I could report that it was rare that a score comes along that is so undistinguished and uninteresting as this one. At least it ends with an entertaining double wallop of songs of a higher calibre.

"Memphis Lives In Me" is far and away the best song in the score and Kimball's performance here is the true highlight of the recording. It must be quite difficult to perform live, as must be much of his tricky material. He is absolutely wonderful here and throughout and in this one moment the show comes together quite beautifully and momentarily escapes the all-encompassing innocuousness and ineffectiveness that envelops most of the rest of it. Kimball has come a long way from Milky White, for better and worse, though he is the true standout in a spectacularly special and strong cast of performers and they are due high praise for their efforts. "Steal Your Rock ‘N Roll" is another bright spot in the score, and this double-punch ends the show on a very good note. The enthusiastic ending covers many of the many faults that come before it, which at least leaves the listener with a relatively good impression.

Sadly, the score does not hold up very well on repeated listening so while it is recommendable for the cast and its place as a new Broadway score, as a whole it lacks the spark and creativity when put to the relatively low standard set by the better musicals of the last few decades, whether on Broadway or off - off-Broadway where, more often than not, the best scores to be heard in the last two decades have originated. Maybe MEMPHIS would be better there with only its uniformly excellent main cast members than up against the big boys on Broadway with lots of unnecessary choral counterparts, as it frequently sounds overproduced and overdone on recording and the mediocre score simply does not hold up to its lofty instrumentation and arrangements. Alas, wishing MEMPHIS were better does not make it better, whether through the sheer will of the willing and willful performers. Or, for that matter, an educated expectant audience like us. I'd like to like every new score as they are so rare but I'd be lying if I did so here.

See it live, or skip it, seems to be the best recommendation, though the score shows slight eleventh-hour accomplishment with the closing songs so you may want to check those out, and if you like them sample the rest.

SCORE: 4/10

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)