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From Show Boat to Finian's Rainbow to Ragtime to Hairspray the racial divide between white America and Americans of African decent has been one of the richest resources for both Broadway musical dramas and musical comedies. And a popular theme of such musicals has been the assimilation of African-American music into the white mainstream. The latest to tackle this topic, Memphis, certainly wouldn't look like the best of the lot on paper, but on stage the gritty sincerity of Joe DiPietro's book coupled with David Bryan's infectiously melodic compositions (they collaborated on the lyrics), under Christopher Ashley's dynamic staging, frequently threaten to tear the roof off of the Shubert Theatre.
Suggested by the real-life story of 1950s Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, a white guy who was instrumental in giving air time to black rhythm and blues artists, Memphis boasts a surefire contender for the most unlikely of romantic leading male characters to appear in a Broadway musical. Here named Huey Calhoun, he's played by Chad Kimball (who first caught Broadway's attention playing a cow in the Into The Woods revival) with an irritatingly nasal drawl, smart-ass arrogance and a posture that jauntily leans in all directions. Driven, naïve, idealistic and sometimes just plain stupid, Kimball's fascinating warts-and-all portrayal of Huey's rise from department store clerk to the city's number one deejay because of his passion for what was then called "race music," gives the musical a realistic edge.
Montego Glover sings with vibrant and forceful sexuality as Felicia, the blues vocalist he falls for both professionally and romantically. As with all the other black people Huey encounters, Felicia has an initial distrust for this crazy white guy who claims that the music of her people is in his soul. (This kind of distrust is very effectively played out in a musical scene where black kids in a playground suspiciously view white kids who show an appreciation for their music.) And while a romance does develop between them, Glover always shows the side of her character that, aware of the times they live in, cannot completely give herself to Huey.
While the supporting players get few standout moments, Michael McGrath (as Huey's uptight station manager), J. Bernard Calloway (as Felicia's protective brother), James Monroe Iglehart (as a janitor with a breakout turn in a Chubby Checker-type number) and Cass Morgan (as Huey's fearful mother) all make significant contributions.
The singing and dancing ensemble sizzles performing Sergio Trujillo's exuberant period choreography, which blends nicely into Ashley's kinetically brisk staging. When the movement halts it's only to spotlight Glover hitting emotional peaks as she considers the risks she's taking in her ballad, "Colored Woman," or to allow Kimball to defiantly state Huey's convictions as he brings down whatever's left of the house with his 11 o'clocker, "Memphis Lives In Me."
Yes, there are moments of predictable schmaltz and the ending is most definitely contrived, but the rest of Memphis is bursting with gutsy story-telling, convincing performances and exhilarating moments that more than make up for a bit of predictability.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Chad Kimball; Bottom: Montego Glover.
Posted on November 02, 2009 - by
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About the Author:After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.