The Broadway-bound show "Memphis" jumps and jives — but the plot and characterizations still have a few moves to work out. Review of the 5th Avenue Theatre production by Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson.
Bursting at the seams with big vocal talent, a soulful tone and attitude, and enough human wattage to power a city block, the musical “Memphis” has a lot going for it.
This in-process show, now trying out at 5th Avenue Theatre for a potential stand on Broadway, blasts out of the gate with a rambunctious opening number, “Underground,” set in a Beale Street juke joint in the 1950s.
Packed with black revelers singing and dirty-dancing, the joint is jumpin’ when a high-fivin’ white guy and future disc jockey, Huey Calhoun stumbles into the Memphis nightspot.
There he encounters the two loves of his life — rhythm & blues music, and a dazzling black singer named Felicia.
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There’s much raw material here for a strong show, including some jim-dandy, horn-driven R & B numbers and mini-homages to ’50s pop, by composer (and Bon Jovi band member) David Bryan. And Christopher Ashley’s staging exudes vigor and polish, as does Sergio Trujillo’s party-down choreography.
So why then, does “Memphis” take so long to grab and hold your complete attention?
Maybe because the show runs in mainly two gears: neutral and (more often, and too quickly) overdrive. And Joe DiPietro’s book isn’t fully focused or engaging. And the opening night amplification was so murky, it buried half the song lyrics.
Count among the assets, however, Seattle native Chad Kimball’s committed, arresting lead turn as Huey, a man on a crusade to expose vital black pop music to the masses.
An illiterate, jive-spewing oddball with an ego on steroids, Huey (the role was inspired by several actual deejays) instantly alienates everyone he encounters.
The list includes Simmons (Allen Fitzpatrick), the Memphis radio station manager who hires but never trusts him. And Delray (J. Bernard Calloway on opening night, soon to be replaced by Melvin Abston), the nightclub owner and brother of the fetching Felicia (powerhouse singer Montego Glover).
Even Huey’s (unnamed) Mama, a redeemable bigot played tartly by Cass Morgan, can barely stand him.
Huey is a near-thankless part, but the canny, gifted Kimball attacks it fearlessly. Though he sporadically makes Huey loveable, he never smooths over the guy’s rough edges (or his hairdo’s many cowlicks).
And Kimball’s reedy, sturdy tenor pipes work just fine, on such rousing anthems as “Music of My Soul” and “Tear Down the House.”
It is tough to fathom, though, why and how Glover’s dishy Felicia goes for this kooky loudmouth. There’s no falling-for-you duet to help make the case. And when this classy gal coolly offers Huey sexual favors for assisting her career, it feels way out of character.
In that instance, and many others, “Memphis” drives home the overt and underhanded racism black musical artists faced in that era. However, the show might look to “Dreamgirls” and “Hairspray” (musicals it occasionally recalls) for ways to handle the subject less ham-handedly.
Here we have a glut of instances where clueless white folk betray their racist ignorance, and blacks make wisecracks and roll their eyes in exasperation.
More tellingly dramatic are the subterfuges Huey and Felicia resort to in hiding their mixed-race affair, and the violence they endure just for loving one another.
But it would lift the show considerably if that romance, which dominates the last stretch of “Memphis,” felt more convincing.
The couple’s squabbles are less interesting toward the end than Huey’s wild, on-camera meltdown as he auditions for a big national break. At that point, “Memphis” shifts into “A Star is Born” mode, and rises to defend the unruly, anarchic roots of rock’n’roll — imperiled by bland white TV pop-purveyors like TV dance party host Dick Clark (who is much maligned here).
If the storyline and pace are wanting,”Memphis” already boasts A-list Broadway production values (set by David Gallo, fun period costumes by Paul Tazewell, sharp lighting by Howell Binkley).
And Trujillo’s vivacious group dances are a real joy. One allows the beefy janitor Bobby (terrific James Monroe Iglehart) to hang up his broom and bust some moves. Another reflects civil rights progress in a novel way: via inter-racial jump-roping, double-dutch style.
Misha Berson: email@example.com