Book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music by David Bryan
Sam S. Shubert Theatre, New York
Review by Philip Fisher
Memphis is a slick, "fantastical" musical set in Tennessee in the early 1950s that addresses serious issues, albeit in a fairly shallow fashion.
Its central character is Huey Calhoun, a fine specimen of trailer trash with ambition, played with great style by Chad Kimball, who must surely be in line for some Broadway award nominations.
Huey is a DJ with a nasal Southern drawl and charisma who loves to wind up the establishment in the manner of Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam or Alan Berg as portrayed in Talk Radio.
He delights in breaking rules and in the Deep South back then, there was one over all others, the segregation of coloured folk from white.
Huey's weapon of choice in his battle with the establishment was what was known as Race Music and now might be rhythm 'n blues or soul. In no time, he moves from being an outsider in Delray's bar to radio host and local TV star, wowing the white kids and making money for everyone involved.
His mission is helped by his discovery of a talented young Black singer, Delray's sister Felicia. Montego Glover relishes this role and demonstrates a voice that will inevitably win her lucrative recording contracts, if it hasn't already done so.
The singing, along with Sergio Trujillo's choreography, is the show's major strength. In addition to Miss Glover, Chad Kimball has an unusual but very attractive voice and two big men, J. Bernard Calloway as Delray and James Monroe Iglehart, weigh in with gravel in their throats.
The creative team have done them proud with Joe (F**king Men) DiPietro writing some strong lyrics about the Race issue and David Bryan a series of catchy tunes, leaving everyone humming their way out of the theatre after the unforgettable Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll, though The Music of My Soul and Radio also have similar delectable rhythms.
In addition to following the semi-illiterate Huey's journey from rags to riches, Memphis builds a love story across racial barriers, as he and Felicia fall for each other. This was illegal in the South so the obvious solutions were either to desist or move North. While everyone else can see that, the cussed Huey inflames the situation, fighting vigilantes and TV producers with equal enthusiasm.
The plotting is not as smooth as it ought to be, relying on the hero's instability to paper over cracks but that is of no great significance.
On the night Christopher Ashley, the Artistic Director at La Jolla in California where Jersey Boys started out, ensures that the songs and dance sequences will win over audiences in an elaborate scenic setting from David Gallo enhanced by the colourful costumes of Paul Tazewell.
Even more though, the two leading performers and their stories will provide the kind of word of mouth that sells tickets, and that is what every producer (close to 30 in this case) wants to hear.