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‘Memphis’ on BroadwayBY: Julie Morcate 11.17.2009
In the ingenious and lively Memphis, a white radio DJ falls in love with the music of his soul, and with the African-American woman singing it. These two rich characters from the ‘50s and their equally rich music crystallize the role played by rock n’ roll in the downfall of racial segregation.
Memphis. Book by Joe DiPetro; music by David Bryan; directed by Christopher Ashley. At Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th St., New York. (212) 239-6200 or www.memphisthemusical.com/news.html.
Love, sex, race
In Memphis, a white radio DJ named Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball) falls in love with the music of his soul— and with the African-American woman singing it.
This tragic love story, set against America’s segregated past, offers a depth rarely found in Broadway musicals, especially one as lively as Memphis. Kimball and his leading lady, Montego Glover (who was born and raised in Tennessee herself) have spent six years working intimately with director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Sergio Trujillo to create genuinely three-dimensional characters.
From the opening curtain the audience is transported to the mood of 1950s Memphis. In Delray’s club, young black couples dance to a rhythm-and-blues number. Vibrant colors— hot pinks and teals, deep reds and purples and blue lighting— capture the infectious appeal of rock ’n’ roll. Felicia Farrell (Glover) enters and sings along with her brother Delray (J. Bernard Calloway), captivating Huey with her deep voice and gorgeous smile.
The white grocery store in the next scene, by contrast, is full of pasty green walls, fluorescent lights and customers dressed in dull greys. Huey plays a record by Perry Como, and as the white singer ascends to the stage, the customers remain lifeless. Como plods downstage until Huey announces that Como is putting him in a coma and throws on Buck Wiley, whose upbeat singing and feverish dance moves (reminiscent of James Brown) electrify the surprised white patrons.
Ashley directed this scene as an adorable comic exchange: The previously stagnant white customers lose themselves in the power of the black artist’s music. But the hilarity screeches to a halt when the store manager returns and rips off the record, announcing: “This is nigger music—ain’t no niggers here.”
‘Tell them you’re white!’
Joe DiPietro’s script uses humor as a tool to show the irrationality of prejudice. When Huey finally gets a spot on a reluctantly progressive radio station, the owner (Michael McGrath) tells him, “This is race music— no God-fearing people listen to it!” When events subsequently prove otherwise, he says to Huey, “Get over here and tell them you’re white! Tell them what high school you went to!”
Kimball plays Huey as naïve but sincere—tragic flaw of a well-intentioned hero. It’s a fascinating portrayal of an idiosyncratic character. Huey never censors himself— behavior that some people find nutty and others find appealing. When Felicia considers his offer to play her music, she tells him, “When a man promises me something, he wants something in return.” Huey replies, “I do want something more— but not in return for putting you on the radio.” His disregard for social rules is visually manifested as well: Costume designer Paul Tazewell decks Huey out in neon suits, animal prints and mismatching outfits that more than one character feels compelled to comment on.
Kimball’s singing voice is a pleasure, especially juxtaposed against his hard spoken Southern drawl; and his comedic timing is brilliant, sometimes oblivious and wisecracking in the same scene. Montego Glover’s voice— alternately luxurious like velvet, slow like honey and bursting like sunshine—is the strongest I’ve ever heard from a female lead.
The development of minor characters is sensitively portrayed as well. When Huey tells his Mamma (Cass Morgan) that black churches are opening their doors, she’s initially horrified: “Bring innocent white children down to the colored church?” she asks. But when she goes to see for herself, she concludes, “Colored folk sing like white people can’t, and that reverend spoke like he was dancing!” Her song, Change Don’t Come Easy, sung with Delray, Gator (Derrick Baskin) and Bobby (James Monrow Iglehart), is the alternatively funny and inspiring anthem of a convert to the cause of equal rights.
Memphis puts memorable music and charismatic characters at the service of a serious theme: humankind’s struggle against ignorance. Every actor, lead or ensemble, manifests the passion and joy in this cause. Ultimately, though, Memphis resists the temptation to let wishful thinking triumph over reality, as its bittersweet ending attests.♦
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