nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 22, 2009
Memphis wants to be a happy musical. That's what my companion said as we were heading home from the theatre, and she is entirely correct. This new show by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics; he's from the band Bon Jovi) reminded me more than anything else of one of those dopey MGM musicals from the '30s and '40s—the kind where Mickey Rooney would bound into some producer's officer, insert himself at the piano before anyone can throw him out, and start plunking out a catchy tune which, miraculously, would suddenly be played by an unseen orchestra while Mickey sang the lyric. And then Judy Garland, as the producer's secretary or something, would wander in and even more miraculously start to sing the second verse.
This sort of thing happens throughout Memphis. Honest.
The story revolves around an affable if slightly rebellious young white man in Memphis in the 1950s named Huey Calhoun. One day he is passing by a saloon in a black neighborhood, and because he loves the music he hears emanating from it, he goes in. He brazenly promises to make the bar singer, a young African American woman named Felicia, a star on the radio. He also falls instantly in love with her. In short order, he manages to get himself a job at a local radio station (pretty much the way Mickey used to get his jobs in the movies) and before Act One is over he's made good on his promise to Felicia. He's even landed himself a TV show, a sort of prototype American Bandstand thing where he introduces new black singers and all the dancers are black as well. One musical number in the first act shows us the black and white teenagers of Memphis playing merrily together because the "race music" that Huey plays has brought them together. Huey's bigoted mom even goes to a black church to hear the gospel singing.
The music is rockin' and the dancing is energetic and the singing is soulful and there's no reason not to relax and have a good ole time as Huey and Felicia's utterly improbable saga spins out.
Oh wait: there is a reason. Look at this: it's a sobering reminder of where things stood in this country with regard to racial equality back in the 1950s. You'll see that Tennessee was one of 17 states that still had laws against miscegenation on the books until a Supreme Court ruling in 1967 (!) overturned them.
In Memphis, there's a song called "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night"—it's supposed to be the one that launches Huey's career, and gets lots of hip white folks excited about black music. Do DiPietro and Bryan seriously believe that anybody in Memphis in the 1950s, black or white, could have embraced such a sentiment?
The authors do pay lip service to the tragic realities of life in the American South during this period. Felicia acknowledges that to marry Huey would be against the law, and she gets a line later on where she informs him that while he, as a white man, has many choices in his life, hers are severely limited by the color of her skin. Delray, Felicia's brother, tells Huey more than once that he hasn't lived what the blues is about. Gator, the bartender at Delray's place, is said to have witnessed a lynching long ago.
But the message of Memphis is that the music brings us all together, and that Huey is some kind of hero for bringing it to white America for the first time. It's a nice, happy message, but it only feels that way if you're willing to forget the terrors, the struggles, the deaths, the senseless waste of lives that got us to such a place.
I should mention that the performances in Memphis all seem pretty heartfelt and are occasionally thrilling. James Monroe Iglehart stops the show with a song called "Big Love" at the top of Act II that shows off his big voice and sexy moves. The terrific Cass Morgan gets a turn to vocalize as Huey's mother, as does J. Bernard Calloway as Delray. Montego Glover does most of the solo singing as Felicia, and she's often exciting to listen to. In the lead, Chad Kimball is endlessly likable and sly as Huey, and when he gets the chance to do some dancing, his energy ignites the place. His big number is "Memphis Lives in Me," in which Huey proclaims his allegiance to his hometown; this comes just after Felicia and her crew have left for a big record contract in the North. It's a stirring song, I guess, but I couldn't stop thinking about some of the grand traditions Huey is upholding here: institutionalized racism, segregation, lynchings.
About ten years after the events in this musical, Martin Luther King, Jr., would come to Memphis, where he would give his last speech and then be assassinated.