Some great rock musicals have made their way to Broadway in the “post Rent” era. Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, and Next to Normal have all piqued my interest in the evolution of the Broadway musical. With Memphis billed as a story about “the birth of rock and roll,” I was expecting to tack another show onto this list. And I had reason to think so.
While I was standing outside the Shubert Theatre in the brisk October morning air, two people walked by me, noticed I was waiting for tickets, and exuberantly told me what a treat I was in for. This kind of man-on-the-street feedback was surprising to me, particularly for a show that was still in previews. I felt so good about myself! I was the first rusher in line at 9:30 a.m. (come on people; you’re making this too easy!) and only had to wait a half hour to get front row tickets to a show that two New Yorkers thought was great.
The student rush policy for Memphis was a great one. It was the good ol’ two-tickets-in-the-front-row-for-$26.50-each deal. The reason I say “was” though is because the policy was only in effect during previews (Memphis opened last night). When contacted, publicists for Memphis told me that there are no official plans to instate a rush post-opening, but there has been talk of it and it will depend on week-to-week sale monitoring. So I guess that means all you rushers waiting to see this new musical will have to hope the show isn’t a sellout. Memphis sold just over 91 percent of its tickets last week, so the likelihood of a rush being reinstated soon isn’t looking too good.I can’t remember the last time I was this excited to see a new musical. Memphis is opening at an ideal moment—there are no new musicals opening anywhere to the left or right of its premiere, so it’s the one and only singing new kid on the block. The show, with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music and lyrics by David Bryan (of Bon Jovi!), is about the origins of rock and roll in America and the interracial couple behind the music—makings for a potentially gripping story. And the show boasts two hot new stars, which is refreshing, considering the recycling of some of Broadway’s ubiquitous (albeit great) talents. All these factors made for such a sad moment when I realized Memphis was falling short for me.
Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball) muscles his way into a DJ job at a radio station in the titular city and dares to play “race records,” inspired by his penchant for hanging out in black nightclubs where he’s not warmly welcomed. Despite his superiors’ intolerance of the genre, the youth of America catches his drift and Huey sparks a cultural fire. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a black rock and roll songbird and Huey adds another bullet to his list of social regulations to defy.
The show kicks off with a sexy, bluesy number called “Underground.” The revelers of a subterranean black club bump, grind, and tickle the ivories to this killer melody. Enter Huey, who earns his right to stay at the club by belting out a soulful number called “The Music of My Soul.” The show is off to a wildly momentous start, but it doesn’t last long, as the story becomes slow and predictable.
As we get to know our two leads—Huey, the rebel radio host, and Felicia (Montego Glover) his vision of what this new genre of music should be—they become increasingly irritating.
I couldn’t figure out whether Kimball’s Huey was a charming goof or an annoying hick. Huey doesn’t have much in the way of intelligence (he’s illiterate), which is fine. The only thing is, Huey doesn’t even seem to have street smarts. What he is, though, is earnest; and that note works well for Kimball. Yet he makes other odd choices with Huey that do not work. He looks and sounds just like President George W. Bush. He talks and walks like he’s 70 years old. And he wears the most hideous clothing (courtesy of Paul Tazewell). DiPietro and Bryan’s writing is intended to make you fall in love with Huey, but I just couldn’t. It is clear though that Kimball has massive control over Huey; he knows who this character is and has a firm grip on the reigns. I just don’t agree with his acting decisions. However, his wild radio cattle call, “Hockadoo!” is delightful.
As Huey’s muse and lover, Glover has a fantastic voice and is required to use it extensively (she sings half the songs in the show). But while her vocals are right on point and extremely entertaining, her acting is regrettably average (despite some excellent comedic timing). Her dramatic moments don’t cross the line of true severity and strife, which the story is desperately begging for.
There is a romance at the center of Memphis, but it is more a story about envy that tears apart a relationship, rather than social prejudices doing the deed. As Felicia’s star rises, Huey constantly tries to sabotage her. Glover’s Felicia lacks some much-needed sass. I felt like her character was aching to snap and stand up to Huey, but she never does. Just when I thought her temper was about to flare, she lays on a sickening “Sugar…” while addressing Huey and continues to weakly play to his needs. This show would benefit from a stronger, feistier female character. Afterall, Felicia is supposed to symbolize the uprising of rock and roll; rock and roll doesn’t involve any “sugar!”
Memphis’s leads disappoint, but there’s a much stronger supporting cast that delivers. J. Bernard Calloway gives the show’s best (and most consistent) performance as Felicia’s surly brother Delray. James Monroe Inglehart is painfully lovable as the janitor of Huey’s radio station and delivers a wildly fun number called “Big Love.” And Derrick Baskin is the strongest vocalist of the cast as Gator, given the honor of singing the beautiful and quiet Act I closer, “Say a Prayer.” Unfortunately, all these characters get cheated of stage time, and are not allowed to explore their characters, who have unseen depth.
I actually think Memphis is going to be a huge hit. The company numbers are great; they’re feel-good, and they’ll make you want to get up and dance. Crowds are going to love this aspect of the show, and word is going to spread. But the story didn’t allow me to get emotional with it. I’m told that Huey and Felicia love each other, but I don’t feel it. DiPietro doesn’t give the two any love scenes, no quiet intimate moments in which we see how much they mean to each other. As the musical progresses and Huey’s black comrades continue to be blocked by the white shot callers, the music and dialogue are telling me that these characters are wrecked with strife, but I don’t feel it.
Instead, the drama feels canned. A crucial scene involving violence features some embarrassing fight choreography by Steve Rankin, which distracts from the severity of the moment. The scene turns out to be a missed opportunity. Additionally, there are some pacing problems (the passage of two years in Act I is handled sloppily ), and Act II felt like an entirely different show, with an overly dramatic change in tone and scenery. Musically, the show is an odd mix off rock music one minute and stodgy Broadway the next. It couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be.
Memphis had potential to burst upon Broadway and ride the strong new wave of rock musicals that have found success. Instead, it remains a strange hybrid of new and old musical stylings. With its focus on the battle to integrate music in America (particularly on TV), I wonder why anyone hasn’t realized this show is Hairspray with a slightly older cast? And Hairspray better conveyed the pain and disappointment of the oppressed. The offerings of this musical, ironically about revolutionaries and original thinkers, don’t embody any of these traits.