It is probably merely coincidence, but the subjects of race relations and music's impact on American culture are prevalent in a number of New York musical productions this season. Three revivals -- the enchanting Finian's Rainbow, Dreamgirls, which is playing an engagement at the legendary Apollo Theater before beginning a national tour, and Ragtime -- all deal with the issue of race.
Two of those, Dreamgirls and Ragtime, along with Bye Bye Birdie, also feature the musical theme, exploring in part how new forms of music (R&B, ragtime, and rock) play into cultural changes in America. But these themes are not limited to revivals. The recently opened Memphis is an original new musical touching on these same subjects. Memphis is loosely based on a true story about '50s DJ Dewey Phillips, who introduced black music to white audiences in Memphis in the mid-'50s.
The fictional version of Phillips portrayed in Memphis is named Huey Calhoun, and, as played by actor Chad Kimball, he is the core of the show. Kimball gives an electrifying performance. Huey is not the most likable character, but Kimball's bold choice to completely inhabit and embody Huey results in a fascinating portrayal, and I couldn't take my eyes off him. He is in perpetual motion, with plenty of stylized body language and movement that is choreographed even in the book scenes. Kimball's Huey, with his thick drawl, is quirky, over the top, and at times annoying. Yet Huey has his admirable and complex qualities too, supporting black music and performers by playing "race music" on mainstream radio at a time where that was not popular and in a segregated city where racism prevailed. He also dared to fall in love with a beautiful black singer. All in all, it is a star performance that is wonderfully sung, capped by a show-stopping and plaintive rendition of one of the show's best songs, "Memphis Lives in Me."
As for the show itself, Memphis is highly entertaining but an imperfect musical. It is inventively staged by Christopher Ashley with lightning-like efficiency and speed. That helps make for a very strong, high-energy first act. The score, written by David Bryan, the Grammy-winning keyboard player and founding member of Bon Jovi, is appealing. It is a mix of rock 'n' roll, R&B, and gospel. While no songs quite stick upon first listen, there are a number of them that were tuneful, and I look forward to hearing them again. Sergio Trujillo provides some strong and often athletic choreography; I especially liked a number called "Radio" late in the first act.
But the dramatic momentum dissipates somewhat in Act Two. While there are still some plot twists, the story lacks the needed impact and freshness we saw in Act One. It is never dull, but it has some triteness and predictability, and it does not quite live up to what we saw in the first act. Some of the blame must be placed on the book, written by Joe DiPietro, who also co-wrote the lyrics with Bryan. There really is no character development other than Huey, and he is not a character who is easy to like, so some of the needed involvement is missing. There isn't much emotion either; the show's only real emotional moment comes from a touching Act One finale, "Say a Prayer."
Fortunately, there are still some winning moments in that second act to pick things up, including Cass Morgan's "Change Don't Come Easy," which is a crowd-pleaser. And, between Kimball's big show-stopper and the rousing finale, "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll," Memphis ends on a satisfying note, even if the final number is not dramatically right or consistent with what has preceded it. These second act high points are indicative of the creators' decision to place entertainment value and well-done production numbers ahead of plot and character development, which results in this musical's shortcomings. The creators have never quite settled on a tone for Memphis, or on how to balance the seriousness and racial issues in the story with the entertainment being shown on stage. A lot of people won't care, though, as the musical numbers are good ones, there are some nice laughs in the script, and the audience leaves the theater on an upbeat note.
Kimball's co-star and love interest is played by Montego Glover, who is likable and sings up a storm as Felicia, the young African American singer who gets her big break thanks to Huey. Her singing is always powerful. But, through no fault of hers, Felicia is never a fully developed character. James Monroe Iglehart, Derrick Baskin, and Cass Morgan also have their moments, but they, too, are underdeveloped, one-dimensional characters.
Still, Memphis' strengths far outweigh its problems. I wish it had told its often interesting story a little better and a little more dramatically. All the makings of an even more powerful story built around race issues, the early days of rock 'n' roll and its relationship to black music (Felicia says at one point: "rock 'n' roll really is just Negro blues sped up"), and a DJ who is breaking barriers are there, even if not completely fulfilled. But Memphis has assets that are considerable, between the first-rate production, the imaginative staging, and the sheer theatricality and entertainment value displayed in many points during this musical. Add in Chad Kimball's star turn and you have a highly enjoyable production.
Memphis has been compared to Dreamgirls and Hairspray because of its themes. Those two musicals take place about ten years after Memphis, and, clearly, acceptance of black music by white audiences changed over that time period. Memphis is more comparable to Dreamgirls, which happens to be probably my favorite musical. Memphis doesn't have the heartbreak or emotional power of Dreamgirls, nor does it provide quite the exhilaration or thrills that Dreamgirls and Hairspray do. But it is a worthy and, overall, fulfilling night of musical theater entertainment, with Chad Kimball providing a memorable performance. I look forward seeing it again. - James Miller
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.