Theatre Review: Memphis The Musical
With today's Broadway dominated by revivals and adaptations, where do you have to go to see a show you haven't already seen on the silver screen? The answer, it appears, is Tennessee. Memphis: The Musical, the 2010 Tony Award winner concludes Fairwinds' 2012/2013 Orlando Broadway Across America season with a weeklong stand at the Bob Carr, is a rarity these days: a musical with a brand-new script and score not drawn from the CD or DVD shelf.
Huey Calhoon (Bryan Fenkart) is a destitute department store employee who dreams of being a DJ; Felicia (Felicia Boswell) sings the blues in a crappy juke joint. They could be a perfect couple, except for three things: he's white, she's black, and they're in the Deep South circa 1950. As they aid each other in their ascents from poverty to fame — hers as a recording star, his by introducing “race music” to TV-watching white teens — the couple is inexorably drawn together, despite his mother Gladys (Julie Johnson) and her brother Delray (Horace V. Rogers) leading the rest of the town in trying to tear them apart.
The beautifully brassy Boswell is by turns feisty and fragile as Felicia, and the supporting cast — led by Johnson and Rogers, along with Rhett George and Will Mann as Huey's pals — is uniformly strong. But, despite a solid singing voice, Fenkart's sidelong perma-grimace and Gomer Pyle dialect drove me to distraction. His cartoonish take might be inspired by Dewey Phillips (the real-life Memphis DJ whose life loosely inspired the show) but all I could see on stage was David Arquette imitating Popeye.
Memphis' plot seems at first like a conventional play on Romeo and Juliet, but writer Joe DiPietro's book takes some unanticipated bittersweet turns. His lyrics don't have quite the same depth (one song basically repeats “she's my sister” for six stanzas), and the score (by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan) settles for paying tribute to the era's R&B and gospel classics without creating any choruses catchy enough to hum as you walk away. But the unmemorable music makes a perfectly competent accompaniment for Sergio Trujillo's explosive choreography, which cleverly quotes dance crazes of the day; the dancing, along with the fluidly cinematic scene transitions director Christoper Ashley creates with David Gallo's sliding set, are the real stars of the show.
Ultimately, Memphis isn't as warm or tuneful as Hairspray, which covers similar thematic territory, but it does acknowledge the dangers integration advocates faced during the dark days of anti-miscegenation laws with much more honesty. And while any multi-million-dollar musical is bound to trivialize complex issues like cultural exploitation, Memphis treats them with more seriousness than most. Memphis may not be a perfect show, but (caveats aside) it is a perfectly polished piece of high-energy entertainment with its heart in the right place.