A Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Memphis"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Larry Stark

"Memphis"

Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music & Additional Lyrics by David Bryan
Original Concept by George W. George
Choreography by Todd L. Underwood
Music Director/ Conductor Galen Butler
Directed by Gabriel Barre

> Scenic Design by Bill Stabile
Lighting Design by Phil Monat
Costume Design by Pamela Scofield
Sound Design by John A. Stone
Wig Design by Gerard Kelly
Assistant Director Tim Bennett
Production Stage Manager Erik E Hedblom

Huey Calhoun...................................................Chad Kimball
Felicia Farrell..............................................Montego Glover
Delray Jones............................................J. Bernard Calloway
Mr. Simmons......................................................David Piel
Bobby......................................................Wayne W. Pretlow
Gladys Calhoun.................................................Susan Mansur
Mr. Collins/Frank Dryer/Elvis/Jed/Gordon Grant/Ensemble..........Neal Mayer
Clara/Patti Page/Susie/Ensemble........................Cat.herine Carpenter
Buck Wiley/Rock Shop Dancer/Dick Clark/Kool Kat/Ensemble...Stephan Stubbins
Roy Rogers/Rock Shop Dancer/Ensemble.............................Kevin Duda
Reverend Fletcher/Rufus/Martin/Kool Kat/Ensemble...............Kevin Covert
Gator/Ensemble...............................................Derrick Baskin
Honey Malone/Ensemble........................................Cynthia Thomas
Florence....................................................Brianna Bradley
Rock Shop Dancers
Randy Aaron, Anika Bobb, Nell Teare, Sarah Styles
Ensemble
Edward M. Barker, Frank Lawson, Jenelle Lynn Randall, Sarah Styles, Nell Teare

ORCHESTRA

Keyboards/Conductor...................Galen Butler
Keyboards..............................John Conway
Trumpet...................................Jay Daly
Trombone............................Walter Bostian
Alto & Soprano Sax/Flute...........Ernest Sola III
Tenor & Baritone Sax/Bass Clarinet...Robert Patton
Electric & Acoustic Guitar/Banjo.....Scott Johnson
Electroc & Upright Bass...............Joe Santerre
Drum Set/Percussion.................Kenneth Hadley

The North Shore Music Theatre is committed to showcasing and nurturing at least one new musical a year with a full main-stage production. This year it was "Memphis" by the team of Joe DiPietro and David Bryan --- which looked close to a successful run on Broadway. Certainly the spontaneous loud cheering by an entire audience at the end of its penultimate performance last Saturday night suggests that this show is one re-write away from hit status.

"Memphis" deals with that shadowy historical time when "Race Records" marketing something called "Rhythm & Blues" to "Negro" audiences became a "temporary fad" called "Rock & Roll" that sent an entire generation of teen-agers across the country into frenzies of irreverent record-buying and juke-joint dancing. The "Story Concept" of the show's Producer George W. George centers on a '50s disc-jockey named Huey Calhoun who gave Black musicians and singers air-time that paved the way for White guys like Elvis and the Beatles to cash in on the new sound. And if that were all, DiPietro's book and Bryan's music would be a crowd-pleasing docu-drama. It's not finished yet, but already it's much more than that.

The show tackles race prejudice head-on, insisting in the life and words of its hero that excellence in music is color-blind, and suggesting that the new sounds in pop music served as a spearhead for greater equality in race relations generally. That's a lot of freight for a "mere" musical, and a lot of responsibility to hang on one White kid with more mouth than brains. But in this mythic take on history, the significance of "The Music of My Soul" cannot be denied.

Though the show begins with somewhat over-amplified church-cords on an organ, the first confrontation comes when Huey (Chad Kimball) walks into Delray's all-Black Memphis nightclub insisting the music drew him in. But it could be the gorgeous young headliner Felicia Farrell (Montego Glover) might have attracted him as well.
Then a quick succession of scenes traces Huey's rise from announcing, playing (and selling) records in a department store to doing the same on a radio station where he can give Felicia air-time for a live song, and then on to a Memphis t-v station.
The titles of songs outline the story: "The Music of My Soul" --- "I Can't Stop This Dance" ---"Everybody Wants to Be Black on Saturday Night" --- "Sin, Degradation And Communism" (the latter the backlash from preachers and parents to this new sound).
The important thing, though, is that the all-Black chorus which is the audience at Delray's and elsewhere blossoms with a growing sprinkling of White bobby-soxers as, muscially at least, the Color-Line begins to evaporate

Every step of the way, people like the department store owner (Neal Mayer) and the radio and t-v station owner (David Piel) keep asking "Is that dirty?"; keep insisting "You can't say that!" and keep worrying that featuring "Race music" is going too far too soon and too fast. Even Delray himself (J. Bernard Calloway) advises restraint ("I Don't Make The Rules"), and when Huey proposes and kisses her on-camera Felicia is horrified that race-mixing instead of mere performing will ruin her much-needed career. (And she has a point; after the show a gang of redneck toughs smashes Huey's knee-cap over race-mixing.)

At this point, downing handfuls of pain-pills and knocking on closed doors, "Crazy Little Huey" watches "Dick Clark" become famous doing a whitewashed version of his own act while throwing away his grey-flannel suit and his career declaring "That Ain't Me!"
And the show ends with a ringing declaration that no one should be allowed to "Steal Your Rock 'n'Roll."

That's the story and the song-titles, but that merely scratches the surface. There's an astonishing ensemble of performers here (10 Black, 9 White) who can rocket around the NSMT circular stage like pinballs gyrating in Pamela Scofield"s gaudy period costumes to Todd L. Underwood's variations on '50s sock-hop steps. Each one was permitted a unique personality by Director Gabriel Barr, and the six principals --- many of them Local Kids making their mark! --- literally outdid themselves.

To start with,Chad Kimball played the hyper-excited motormouthed Huey Calhoun as though he were James Dean in his first musical. He had the stance, the pointing arm, the head-shake and the hesitations and the smile down cold, as well as proving his Boston Conservatory past by bursting powerfully into song. (When Huey promises his cynical mother a house, Dean in "East of Eden" comes to mind.)

In a sense, Montego Glover's Felicia embodied the music Huey fell in love with --- blues-beat ballads and ringing anthems ("I Can Shake The Blues" "Someday" "Colored Woman"). She's worldly-wise beyond her slender young looks and energetic dancing, and hides a daughter out of wedlock as the spur to do whatever it takes to become a well-paid star.

J. Bernard Calloway, another Boston/Newton/Providence/Brandeis graduate, is the cautious Delray Jones. He functions as a Black realist worried about White backlash in a Memphis still in the grip of Jim Crow. And that brother sure can sing!

Then there's a trio of beautifully written and masterfully played characters for comic contrast, led by the acerbic cynicism of Huey's mother. Susan Mansur's Gladys Calhoun insults and down-grades her son from unthinking racist roots --- until his success with Race records buys her a house, and bottom-line trumps color-line.

Then David Piel as station-owner Mr. Simmons and Wayne W. Pretlow as Bobby his janitor function as a kind of racial Fric & Frac: The avaricious conservative businessman is continually asking his employee whether Huey's breezy hyperbole and dangerous choice of music has any value, and Bobby is always amazed at how fast Huey's brash, always-over-the-top patter reaches his public.

Joe DiPietro's book for this show bristles with the hard-edged, pithy and often scatological commentary of a race tired of needless oppression. This biting view, in lyrics as well as book, constitutes a serious undertone rarely found in musicals.

In the later moments of "Memphis" everyone seems to say that Huey Calhoun, in winning his battle for the universal acceptance of a style of music once owned only by Blacks, stopped being unique and was ignored as suddenly ordinary. Certainly every logorheic top-40 d.j. in America picked up his playlist and his patter, while Elvis and The Beatles became more famous than their R & B mentors as "White guys who could play Black" and that is the rationale of the final song in "Memphis" called "(Don't Let Them) Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll". But in the NSMT production the "Rock 'n' Roll" in question is not Delray's Rhythm 'N' Blues --- which was quickly downgraded to an academic footnote --- but merely Huey Calhoun's personal motormouth-style. This is the one piece of the show I, personally, would like to see worked on.

I have no idea how much real "history" went into the making of "Memphis" but I don't really care. For me its function as myth is much more important than any documentary fact could be. And, after that one final re-write, I hope Broadway is ready for this mythic blast from the past.

Love,
===Anon.


"Memphis" (September 23 - 11 October)
NORTH SHORE MUSIC THEATRE
62 Dunham Road, BEVERLY
1(978)232-7200


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