Much like the West End, The Broadway is awash with juke box musicals and Memphis had been somewhat off the Whingers’ dial as they had mistakenly assumed it fell into that category. It just does sound like Dreamboats & Petticoats, Jersey Boys or American Idiot, doesn’t it?
Having already been chastised for not doing our homework (we tried explaining that Kevin Spacey’s dog Minnie ate it but to no avail) we really should know by now to have have checked and found out that – hallelujah! – Memphis is indeed a completely original show.
Well, perhaps “completely original” is stretching things a little. Since we knew next to nothing of this show we hadn’t read of the comparisons with Dreamgirls and Hairspray, but as the Browadway Bellyachers (as we then were) drifted into the street for their interval discussion, they found themselves almost in accord with the real critics.
“It’s Hairspray without the wigs” mused Andrew.
“Funny that. I wrote down Hairspray without the drag” agreed Phil, “Unless you count the Perry Como impersonation”.
Yes! A Perry Como impersonation! Andrew had shown little interest in a musical about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, but as he entered the Shubert Theatre and spotted the cast list mentioning the iconic crooner (understudied at this performance by Kevin Covert) he perked up considerably.
Memphis charts the rise of department store employee Huey Calhoun (loosely based on Dewey Phillips) who becomes one of the first white disc jockeys to play the “Bebop boppiest” of black music (aka “race records”) in the 1950s. He discovers – professionally and personally – black singer Felicia Farrell (Montego Glover), they fall in love and he determines to smash every segregationist convention going, from insisting on having black dancers on his TV show to proposing to Ms Farrell.
Mixed race love affairs? Segregated TV dance shows? Poor white trash improving the lives of poor black folk? Mmmm yes it is rather familiar isn’t it? But Phil found Christopher Ashley‘s production utterly engaging, once the sound settled down. The lyrics in many of the earlier big numbers (which were energetically staged) were completely inaudible to the Whingers who confess to not having done their homework and downloaded the lyrics in advance.
The impressive sets (David Gallo) rise, fall, twirl and slide moving the action from department store (the 50’s kitchen appliances particularly caught our eyes) to radio station to underground club very fluidly.
The two leads Glover and Chad Kimball (Huey) have splendid stage presence and chemistry together. Kimball moves around as though his body is made of rubber, drawling his words as though on the verge of intoxication, he’s charismatic and extremely funny. He has the tiniest eyes and a chin that moves from side to side rather than up and down and legs that refuse to straighten – quite a refreshing change to your day-to-day leading man.
There’s good support from J. Bernard Calloway as Felicia’s brother Delray who impressively projects his spittle as far as the Whingers in the thirrd row of the orchestra stalls. And Cass Morgan (who co-authored Pump Boys and Dinettes) is likeable as Huey’s initially dowdy mama, shining in her second act number “Change Don’t Come Easy”.
The numbers are varied and often catchy, the book has plenty of humour (music and lyrics by Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan; lyrics and book by F***ing Men autor Joe DiPietro) and Sergio Trujillo‘s (who also did Next to Normal) choreography is very pleasing. Other highlights included some rather good wigs and a huge amount of on-stage smoking (no prissy warning signs here).
SPOILER ALERT What’s the first thing you think when you’re told that a character on stage has been mute ever since a childhood trauma? Nothing, judging by the gasps from most of the audience when mute barman Gator (Derrick Baskin) suddenly spoke. Or perhaps because they were too busy texting (the Bellyachers were bookended by two such people) to have thought anything. Admittedly even we were slightly fooled, guessing that this miracle wouldn’t happen until the very end, although it actually came at the end of Act 1. And we practically NEVER foresee ANYTHING.
Gator gets to wear an alligator head mask at one point in the show which looks very like one of the Enron raptor head masks. Strangely enough the Broadway transfer of Enron (which opened Tuesday) is playing at the Broadhurst next door. Do they pass it out through the stage door during the show? Severed hands or raptor heads? Which is this years Broadway trend? Discuss.