Monday, October 26, 2009
I don’t remember having such a good time at a musical since I saw Hair last spring. Memphis offers great music, terrific dancing and a story with surprising depth. It also features a leading man whose performance is so dynamic he could easily walk away with the Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award in June.
Memphis is the story of Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball, in photo, center), a young man with lots of energy and creativity who doesn’t always know where to direct it. He never finished ninth grade and gets fired from every mediocre job he attempts. He’s also a white man who loves black music in racist and segregated 1950s Tennessee. (His character was inspired by Dewey Phillips, a pioneering disc jockey who helped open the door to rock and roll by being the first to play a record by Elvis Presley.)
Like many people with high energy and creativity, Huey is ahead of his time. He abhors the bland Eisenhower-era music played on the radio, preferring the soulful sounds performed in the black music joints he frequents on Beale Street. Along with a passion for the music, he falls in love with one of the singers, Felicia Farrell, engagingly played by Montego Glover.
Ever the boundary pusher, Huey sneaks into an all-white radio station control room when the DJ steps out for a break. He locks himself in, yanks the syrupy record off the turntable, pops on some black music and begins talking to the audience. The station manager has a fit, fearing listeners will be offended by the “race music.” Instead, the phones begin ringing with white teenagers calling to say how much they love it. Huey is given a probationary trial run, during which he takes the ratings from number five to number one.
The South being what it was at the time meant this transition wouldn’t be easy, though. The Act 1 closer, “Say a Prayer,” is a plea for change. But not every one is ready for change and Act 2 portrays the toll taken on Huey and Felicia, who are not legally able to marry even though they both want to, and the challenges of staying on top in the fickle music industry. Act 2 is even more moving and involving than the highly enjoyable first act.
Under director Christopher Ashley’s careful attention to detail the shows is a fast-paced ball of entertainment. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo, familiar with this time period from his work on Jersey Boys and All Shook Up, creates dance scenes that are alive and thrilling. David Bryan’s music pulses with rhythm and energy (he’s Bon Jovi’s keyboardist) and his and Joe DiPietro’s lyrics enhance the story. (DiPietro also wrote the book.) The effort is supported by David Gallo’s atmospheric sets, by Paul Tazewell’s colorful period costumes and Howell Binkley’s expert lighting.
The stellar supporting cast gives it all they’re got and are letter perfect in every way. Among the notables are J. Bernard Calloway as Delray, Felicia’s brother and manager; James Monroe Iglehart as Bobby, a janitor at the radio station; Cass Morgan as Gladys Calhoun, Huey’s less-than-encouraging mother; and Derrick Baskin as Gator, the bartender.
The final number, “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll,” with Huey, Felicia and the company will have you dancing your way home and wanting more. I want to go back!
Tickets for Memphis are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or visiting Telecharge the Shubert Theatre box office, 225 W. 44th St. For more details, visit MemphistheMusical.