Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Memphis"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


book and lyrics by Joe DiPetro
music, additional lyrics, vocal and dance arrangements by David Bryan
based on a concept by George W. George

directed by Gabriel Barre
choreographed by Todd L. Underwood
musical direction by Galen Butler

Huey Calhoun … Chad Kimball
Felicia Farrell … Montego Glover
Delray Jones … J. Bernard Calloway
Gladys Calhoun … Susan Mansur
Mr. Simmons … David Piel
Bobby … Wayne W. Pretlow


Randy Aaron; Edward M. Barker; Derrick Baskin; Anika Bobb; Catherine Carpenter; Kevin Covert; Kevin Duda; Frank Lawson; Neal Mayer; Jenelle Lynn Randall; Sarah Stiles; Stephan Stubbins; Nell Teare; Cynthia Thomas; Breanna Bradlee

If you are unable to get tickets to HAIRSPRAY at the Colonial Theatre, then MEMPHIS, a world-premiere musical at the North Shore Music Theatre, is the next best thing. Should you attend both shows, you’ll see how indebted MEMPHIS is to its predecessor: both pay homage to the days of rhythm & blues giving way to rock ‘n’ roll, both deal with life in segregated times and both have rousing, toe-tapping scores. Jumping onboard the HAIRSPRAY bandwagon is not necessarily a bad thing if it will mean a return to musicals that have heart and tunes and are downright fun. (Remember fun?)

Lightly based on the life of Dewey Philips, a Memphis deejay who almost single-handedly introduced white America to black rhythm-and-blues (banned from the airwaves for being “race records”), MEMPHIS charts the rise and fall of Huey Calhoun, a white boy who loves black music, as he goes from record spinner in a department store to Memphis’ No. 1 deejay to has-been (Mr. Philips died at age 42; the same death age as that of Elvis Presley, another white boy influenced by R&B and whose records Mr. Philips later premiered --- the rest is rock ‘n’ roll history). Though Joe DiPetro contributes a storyline that is all too simple (white folks are uptight but quick to loosen up; black folks are persecuted but know how to have a good time) and somewhat predictable (Huey is physically attacked for openly having an affair with a black singer; his monomania eventually drives everyone from him), he and David Bryan have created a musical tough enough and realistic enough to make MEMPHIS more than just a tune-filled return to days that were not so Good and are not so Old; they already have a winner here but it could still use some tightening (a duet mocking Dick Clark is mean and unnecessary; the upbeat finale, “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll”, where HAIRSPRAY’s influence is most keenly felt, should be placed elsewhere, thus ending the show with Huey’s bitterly triumphant “That Ain’t Me”, his no-regrets ode to all he has done for the music he loves, even though he is now forgotten).

Chad Kimball, a stocky, sandy-haired singer-actor, is impressive as the motor-mouth Huey, all moxie and redneck charm, though his resemblance to our current President might land him in DUBYA! THE MUSICAL! further down the road. Several months ago, Montego Glover dazzled Boston in the Huntington’s COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY; as Felicia, Huey’s muse and sweetheart, Ms. Glover catches the lightning halfway through Act One with her “Colored Woman”; DREAMGIRLS may raise its head, but Ms. Glover, her slender frame nearly bent over backwards as she pulls those soaring notes up, up, up through the stage floor, soon banishes all comparisons --- you impatiently wait for the song to end so that you can take over, cheering. (“Colored Woman” is easily the show’s zenith; a sure sign of MEMPHIS’ strength is that there are still many peaks to follow --- the Messrs. DiPetro and Bryan’s clever, catchy score bends the R&B sound to the Great White Way’s aesthetics without diluting its flavor, and they have come up with wonderfully corny pastiches of what Top 40 white artists would sing in the 50s). Among the nimble, kaleidoscopic cast, Cynthia Thomas lingers in the memory as one Honey Malone performing her down-and-dirty “Honey Lovin’” for the Golden Age of Television.

Gabriel Barre and Todd L. Underwood’s production is a spanking new ’57 Chevy with the windows down and the horns blaring and running on high octane energy, though J. Bernard Calloway’s Delray suddenly startles with a few seconds of Michael Jackson robotic movements --- another Memphis visionary? This world-premiere production may be hard to beat --- no doubt, Broadway is in its sights --- for designer Bill Stabile has converted the little arena stage into a veritable 45 single. Everything is or goes in a circle --- the revolving doors and deejay booth that pop up from below, the swirling television cameras, the overhead dome flashing “On the Air”, even the stage itself that revolves along with two shy girls --- one black, one white --- who become friends while hula-hooping. All of this can be done on a proscenium stage, of course, but future Circles will prove far more effective than distant Squares. Dig?

Somebody, please: let me know should the cast recording ever be released (hopefully, with THIS cast), for I had fun at MEMPHIS --- something I don’t often say after attending one of today’s musicals….

“Memphis” (23 September-12 October)
62 Dunham Road, BEVERLY, MA 01915
1 (978) 232-7200

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