I've seen dumber musicals than "Memphis," but not many and not by much. This noisy piece of claptrap, which has been rattling around the regional circuit for the past six years, turns the real-life story of Dewey Phillips, a Memphis disc jockey who fell in love with rhythm and blues in the '50s, into a ludicrous fantasy about a white DJ named Huey (Chad Kimball) who puts a black singer named Felicia (Montego Glover) on the radio, thereby driving the local racists crazy. Big surprise: All the black characters are noble hipsters and all the white characters (except for Huey) are redneck squares. What makes the cartoonish premise of "Memphis" sillier still is that the songs, by Joe DiPietro ("All Shook Up") and Bon Jovi's David Bryan, are slicked-up, blue-eyed pseudosoul knick-knacks that have nothing in common with the down-and-dirty 45s that Phillips spun on WHBQ's "Red, Hot and Blue" a half-century ago. Amazingly enough—or maybe not—this howlingly funny irony seems not to have occurred to anyone connected with "Memphis."
Dang. That. Is. Harsh. Oh well, at least everybody seems to like the cast.
It's always helpful to remember that as hard as we may try to be fair we critics develop rarefied tastes and tend to hate claptrap. But there's a reason it's called that. That said, even Broadway claptrap like Movin' Out the Billy Joel Musical and Abba's Mama Mia got gentler treatment.
Memphis' pre-Broadway reviews were mixed leaning favorable. And having heard the showstoppers sung live at an investor's preview at the Orpheum (click for video of the preview) I'm going to guess that Memphis has a decent run in spite of its cool critical reception. Besides, the definitive review won't be in until Wednesday when frequent Memphis Flyer contributor Bo List tells it like it is.