Yes, there are moments of predictable schmaltz and the ending is most definitely contrived, but the rest of Memphis is bursting with gutsy story-telling, convincing performances and exhilarating moments that more than make up for a bit of predictability.
MEMPHIS: A NEW MUSICAL Broadway Reviews
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Chad Kimball’s summoning up of Huey is so perfect that not for a moment do you believe that it is only acting. This is a performance hewn out of live flesh and blood. He is enchantingly partnered by the Felicia of Montego Glover, a thrilling singer and commanding actress. However difficult this Felicia is, you root for her every inch of her questionable way.
The remarkably rich and raucous character-driven songs, by Bon Jovi cofounder David Bryan, lovingly capture the insinuating, earthy authenticity of rhythm and blues, gospel and early rock and roll without sounding derivative. The moody and inventive production has been put together with down-and-dirty elegance by director Christopher Ashley, choreographer Sergio Trujillo, set designer David Gallo and costume designer Paul Tazewell, who let the musical and dramatic and pop-up scenic discoveries peel off one another at a pace breathless and disciplined, original and authentic. When a singer lets loose - and, eventually, they all do - the vocal pyrotechnics come from deep within the storytelling.
Book writer Joe DiPietro skillfully intertwines these stories. And with composer David Bryan (they co-wrote the lyrics), the two have managed to create a dandy original score that is as tuneful as it is theatrical, the very essence of what a Broadway musical should be. Bryan, keyboard player for Bon Jovi, has a gift for effortless melody and the orchestrations, which he co-wrote with Daryl Waters, makes the music — check out those horns — sound as if it could have first been heard in the '50s.
"Memphis" isn't out to revolutionize musical theater, but its embrace of old-fashioned pleasures is immensely gratifying. Nowhere is this approach more obvious than in the emotionally charged "Colored Woman." Alone in the spotlight, Glover simultaneously lifts up the show and stops it dead in its tracks. Of such thrills, Broadway is made.
Occasionally, "Memphis" feels clichéd and reminiscent of storylines already seen in "Hairspray," "Dreamgirls" and "Jersey Boys." But more often than not, its careful balance of pure fun and character drama proves to be irresistible.
Joe DiPietro ("I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change") handles these complicated themes in a way that's never heavy-handed, with the story's melodramatic aspects leavened by frequent doses of hilarious one-liners, many of them expertly delivered by Kimball. The show eschews becoming yet another jukebox musical with its terrific original score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, which provides an expert pastiche of '50s-era R&B, rock and gospel. Credit, too, must go to the superbly brisk staging by Christopher Ashley and the exuberant choreography by Sergio Trujillo, which is terrifically handled by the large ensemble.
The book by Joe DiPietro is missing a strong climax and the end feels tacked on. That aside, "Memphis" is so loaded with talent, it almost seems pointless to criticize. The music by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan with an assist from DiPietro on lyrics is full of the kind of soul Huey sings about. Whether it's R&B, gospel or rock and roll, the songs recall the hits of the era. And Sergio Trujillo adds a powerful visual stimulus with some dazzling choreography.
Nice to know a new musical can actually surprise you. Though it starts on a familar note and sparks deja vu at other points, "Memphis" eventually finds its own voice and beat, and wins you over with its sheer enthusiasm and exuberant performances.
Though its brain may be a bit simple, "Memphis" has its heart and soul in the right place. The new musical features a rock-solid score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, dynamic singing, and athletic dancing. On the debit side, Joe DiPietro's book reduces a traumatic period in American cultural and musical history to a bland "Behind the Music" special, and director Christopher Ashley encourages his cast to limn broadly, blunting the impact of several potentially heart-wrenching moments.
The new musical Memphis (Shubert Theatre) supplies an object lesson in something every practitioner of musical theater should learn—how to make good entertainment out of less than great material. As writing, Memphis is an uninspired trek over fairly familiar ground; as music, David Bryan's score is listenable and non-painful, but lacking any particular distinction. Even its design tends to look smoothly proficient rather than fresh, evoking prior Broadway musicals instead of the Southern riverbank city of its title.
A talented cast, stirring vocals, athletic dance numbers and vigorous direction supply crowd-pleasing elements in the lively new musical, "Memphis," as evidenced by the waves of appreciation coming off the audience. But there's also a nagging predictability to this story of a white DJ who brings rockin' rhythm and blues from black Beale Street to the mainstream in 1950s Tennessee. The show is entertaining but synthetic, its telepic plotting restitching familiar threads from "Hairspray" and "Dreamgirls," while covering fictitious ground adjacent to that of recent biopic "Cadillac Records."
On the one hand, the stage design is inventive and fairly lavish, the gospel numbers penned by Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan are more than acceptable, and Montego Glover shines as an African American club singer named Felicia Farrell whose socially taboo relationship with Calhoun powers the plot. On the other hand, much of that plot is simply ridiculous, the rock 'n' roll numbers are ploddingly inauthentic, and Calhoun's naivete about the problems likely to be caused by his love for Farrell leads one to believe that he has beamed in from some more racially tolerant time and place (possibly the set of Heathers, given the Christian Slater-ish vibe of Chad Kimball's performance).
Now that Broadway no longer benefits from Hairspray’s retro uplift, space on the Great White Way has been cleared for another musical about the racial integration of a television dance program in the early years of the civil-rights movement. Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s Memphis cannot be faulted for its intentions: Its heart and its soul music are in the right place. The show’s assets begin with Chad Kimball’s dynamic, courageously outré leading performance as Huey, a Tennessee radio DJ in the 1950s, who champions “race records” and embarks on a risky romance with a black singer (the lovely Montego Glover, an impressive vocalist). The music has laudable drive, which Sergio Trujillo’s choreography brings to vibrant life.
The musical’s book checks off all the thematic boxes: prejudice, violence, hardship, stardom, failure, and redemption. Although, for Huey and Felicia, love doesn’t find a way, “Memphis” allows them a union in success, which, on Broadway, trumps love. You leave “Memphis” knowing that you’ve had an exciting experience, but—unable to recall a song, a melody, or a line of dialogue—you can’t quite remember what it was.
Sex and race and rock ’n’ roll made for a potent, at times inflammatory, combination in the 1950s, when the new musical “Memphis” is set. But there’s no need to fear that a conflagration will soon consume the Shubert Theater, where the show opened on Monday night. This slick but formulaic entertainment, written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, barely generates enough heat to warp a vinyl record, despite the vigorous efforts of a talented, hard-charging cast. While the all-important music, by Mr. Bryan of Bon Jovi, competently simulates a wide range of period rock, gospel and rhythm and blues, the crucial ingredient — authentic soul — is missing in action.
Although Memphis is a mock-up of a phony, it does intend to convey a serious message: Rock and roll, it seems, was not invented by white people! Of course, this being Broadway, a white guy is still the star: Chad Kimball plays Huey Calhoun, a stand-in for real-life Memphis D.J. Dewey Phillips, the motor-mouthed firebrand who was among the first to play R&B “race records” for white audiences and famously gave Elvis his radio debut. Unlike Dewey, Huey doesn’t put Elvis on the air—indeed, he seems to exist in an Elvis-less Memphis, where white people sing and dance about only one subject: the inability of white people to sing and dance. It’s just as well: No ersatz Broadway Elvis would fit onstage with Kimball. With his 78 rpm delivery and quicksilver tenor, he’s a perfectly contoured stone skipped briskly across the show’s sluggish surface. He sells a passable eleven o’clock number, “Memphis Lives in Me,” as an aching, ringing heartland anthem.
Part of the problem is that the leads seem incompatible for reasons having nothing to do with skin color. It's tough to see how Montego Glover's elegant Felicia could be attracted to Chad Kimball's buffoonish Huey, who suggests a cross between an aging stand-up comic and a parody of George W. Bush in his frat-boy heyday. Glover gives Felicia an endearing sweetness and sings powerfully. But like her castmates, she's saddled with music and lyrics (the latter co-written by Bryan and DiPietro) that at best play like retreads of old R&B hits. Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi, also invests some songs with power-ballad melodrama.
Memphis wants to be a happy musical. That's what my companion said as we were heading home from the theatre, and she is entirely correct. This new show by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics; he's from the band Bon Jovi) reminded me more than anything else of one of those dopey MGM musicals from the '30s and '40s—the kind where Mickey Rooney would bound into some producer's officer, insert himself at the piano before anyone can throw him out, and start plunking out a catchy tune which, miraculously, would suddenly be played by an unseen orchestra while Mickey sang the lyric. And then Judy Garland, as the producer's secretary or something, would wander in and even more miraculously start to sing the second verse. This sort of thing happens throughout Memphis. Honest.
I've seen dumber musicals than "Memphis," but not many and not by much. This noisy piece of claptrap, which has been rattling around the regional circuit for the past six years, turns the real-life story of Dewey Phillips, a Memphis disc jockey who fell in love with rhythm and blues in the '50s, into a ludicrous fantasy about a white DJ named Huey (Chad Kimball) who puts a black singer named Felicia (Montego Glover) on the radio, thereby driving the local racists crazy. Big surprise: All the black characters are noble hipsters and all the white characters (except for Huey) are redneck squares... If you care, the singing is sensational.