Memphis also gets points, at least from me, for being a truly original musical—one that isn’t based on a movie or a comic book or a record album. In fact, the veteran producer George W. George, who died two years ago, is prominently credited in the Playbill for the story concept.
The show embroiders those basic facts with an interracial love story. The Phillips-inspired character, who's called Huey Calhoun in the show, falls for a beautiful singer he meets while prowling the black blues clubs on the city’s famous Beale Street. In traditional showbiz-story fashion, he promises to make her a star and it’s no spoiler to say that he does. But their love is tested by disapproving relatives (her brother, his mother) racist goons, and their conflicting ambitions (he wants to stay in the south where he’s a big man, she wants to go north where it’s easier for a black woman to make the big time). Along the way there’s lots of singing and dancing.
The producers—all 30 of them—have poured money into the show. The production, overseen by director Christopher Ashley, looks great. David Gallo’s sets are fluid and clever without calling too much attention to themselves (even the video projections that he co-designed with Shawn Sagady are smartly done). Same goes for Howell Binkley’s felicitous lighting. And the only word for Paul Tazewell’s period costumes is fabulous.
Alas, the show’s weak links are its book, lyrics and music. Joe DePietro did the book and co-wrote the lyrics and both kind of resemble a scrapbook of favorite moments from Dreamgirls and Hairspray. There’s an attempt to add some serious social commentary but there's also a simultaneous reluctance to scare audiences away and that creates lapses and bumpy transitions in the narrative.
The music by David Bryan, of Bon Jovi fame, isn't bad (in fact, the guy sitting in front of me got so into the show’s rousing R&B tunes that he could barely stay in his seat) but there’s nothing distinguishing about the songs either. Not one of them has stuck in my head. And that’s a shame in a musical that’s about music, particularly this paradigm-shattering music.
But all the main characters get their power ballads or character numbers and they all do well by them, especially Chad Kimball who plays Huey and Montego Glover who plays his lady love Felicia (click here to read a Wall Street Journal interview with her). And the dance numbers, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, are energetically performed by a large ensemble of talented dancers, although a shout out has to be given to Vivian Nixon, who looks just like her mother Debbie Allen and may be even a better dancer.
So Memphis may not walk away with the crown but it’s got a winning personality. And that counts for a lot. It will also give theatergoers a really good time. And, when all is said and done, that's what really counts most.