By Lauren Yarger
A terrific score by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, a story full of heart, humor and heat by Joe DiPietro (book) an outstanding vocals spin Memphis into one of the most exciting and satisfying musicals to hit Broadway since Next to Normal.
Chad Kimball plays Huey, a never-do-well department salesman who finds his niche as a radio DJ in 1950s Memphis by spinning the “black” music he hears hanging out a club run by Delray (J. Bernard Calloway) instead of the usual “Perry Coma” stuff to which white listeners have become accustomed.
Huey loves something else at the club too: Delray’s sister, Felicia (mega-talented Montego Glover), who dreams of making it big as a singer. Huey’s mother (Cass Morgan) opposes the match, as does Delray and some of the musical’s finest moments come in the interaction between him and Huey as the men take stands for what they believe in while sharing mutual respect. The couple decides to keep their interracial romance, sure to be a powder keg in the midst of civil rights unrest, a secret, though Huey believes Memphis will embrace it as they have him. Eventually, he discovers he's wrong.
Fame is just around the corner for Huey as he auditions to host an American Bandstand-like national TV show, but the networks want to replace his black dancers with white teens. Meanwhile, Felicia has a chance at a label, but it means leaving Huey.
The musical is just very satisfying. There’s bounce in Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, varied and catchy beats in Bryan’s music, humor and tight plot in DiPietro’s book (he and Bryan, who collaborated on off-Broadway’s Toxic Avenger co-wrote the lyrics for Memphis as well) and those really terrific vocals. Kimball is sexy and engaging as Huey and sings his lungs out. Glover hits amazing notes and the rest of the ensemble is great too, particularly Calloway, who performs one number during which it’s hard to hold your seat (you want to get up and dance). David Gallo’s set and co-production design lighted by Howell Binkley with sparkly, swingy costumes by Paul Tazewell bring the era to life (I really enjoyed music groups performing in giant spinning 45s).
Don’t be deceived by your impression of the opening number which is a large musical number full of people you don’t know singing words you can’t hear (Ken Travis, sound design) and as the weakest part of the production, will have you thinking, “what the heck?” But almost like a light switching on, the musical takes shape immediately following. From there on out, Christopher Ashley expertly directs the action, whether it’s a full-scale dance number or a quiet romantic scene with gusto and brings everything together for a toe tapping, heart-tugging, fully satisfying story.
Memphis rocks out at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre
225 West 44th St, NYC. Discounted tickets can be purchased here. Indicate Masterwork Productions is the religious charity you wish to support.
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