Monday, May 16, 2016

Memphis' Namesake Musical Gets its First Hometown Production

Posted By on Mon, May 16, 2016 at 4:18 PM

click to enlarge memphismusical.jpg
“If you listen to the beat, and hear what’s in your soul, you’ll never let anyone steal your rock-and-roll!
That’s the last line of Memphis’ artificially uplifting closer, sung with Bic-waving conviction, as the musical concludes on a note more wishful than happy. But every time I see it (and the times are adding up), I find myself asking the same two questions: “Who stole what, now? And who’d they steal it from?”

It’s not the knotty history of black and white artists (or the black and white contracts they signed in blood) that concerns me at the moment though. It’s the irony.

This Tony-winner’s set at the dawn of the civil-rights era in the city of Sun and Soulsville, and raises the question of Rock- theft often and outright as it tells the subtext-forward story of “crazy little” Huey Calhoun, a motor-mouthed white deejay who falls in love with R&B and with Felicia, the powerful, dark-skinned woman he worships as its living embodiment. It’s based on the life of WHBQ’s Red, Hot & Blue DJ Dewey Phillips, but not really. There’s nothing romantic or bittersweet in the tragedy of Big Daddy Dewey, who played race music for white audiences and introduced Elvis Presley to the airwaves. That substance-shortened life went dark when it went off the rails, and wasn’t a tale playwright Joe DiPietro was interested in telling. What remains is a history-distorting Hairspray redux, with only a fraction of the color, and a collection of songs that make “Walking in Memphis” seem authentic.


What Memphis has going for it is sincerity, and an ability to exude quirky optimism while deploying an incrementalist mantra mugged from MLK: “Change Don’t Come Easy.” Especially if you’re poor, not white, or both. For one brief, shining moment in 2010, Memphis was the new Camelot, arriving, as it did, on Broadway, at roughly the same time the Obamas settled into the White House, and ideas about “post-racial America” were bandied around like it was a real thing. As I pointed out in my earliest reviews, it gained strong, (probably) accidental resonance, as attitudes toward “forbidden love,”  bent in saner directions.

What Playhouse on the Square’s production has going for it is director/co-choreographer Jordan Nichols who’s never been one to underestimate the worth of balls out entertainment. The pace is fast, the dance numbers are explosive and powerful ensemble singing covers for shakier solo moments. Nichols has also assembled top-drawer character actors who help to bring the weirdly-industrial streets of Broadway’s Memphis to raucous life. Huey and Felicia may hoard most of the good songs, but sidemen like John Hemphill, Michael Jay Vails, Marc Gill, and Curtis C. Jackson find authenticity in a play where Beale St. has basement nightclubs, and the Orpheum is a music venue, not a still-segregated movie theater.

Lorraine Cotten’s hillbilly drawl wanders a bit but, as Huey’s racist Mom, her gutsy gospel singing helps bring it all back home.

DiPietro, who wrote Off Broadway’s second longest running musical, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, and the emotionally effective, Over the River and Through the Woods, always had a knack for creating dynamic relationships. Memphis’ most effective moments are played out between mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, ministers and flocks, bosses and employees. Musically speaking, there’s no better example of this than Jarrad Baker’s moving performance of, “She’s My Sister,” where his Delray warns Huey to back off in a song that owes a lot to Stevie Wonder’s, “Living For the City.

The budding, ultimately broken romance between Huey and Felicia is a tougher sell given the natural born DJ’s relentlessly clownish Huckleberry Hound personality. It works, in part, because we want it to work. We want to find just enough hope in history’s wreckage to make all the awfulness seem worth it.


Nikisha Williams’ Felicia is feisty, with a sunshine glow that bursts out of her throat when she sings her breakthrough, “Someday.” So Maybe it’s more Motown than Memphis (with a little bit of this), it’s sweet, mid-Century pop, and the best part of Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan’s score.

Nathan McHenry plays Huey like a 24/7 hayseed comic and doesn’t always seem to have control over his voice. These are endearing qualities except for when they aren’t.

I’d hoped Memphis’ Memphis would at least look a little more like Memphis. Oh well. The creative team was going for “gritty,” but ended up with, “barn.” Bryce Cutler’s scrappy, aluminum-canopied set turns a city of dirty secrets and spectacular sunsets into a missed advertising opportunity

If it sounds like I’m down on Memphis, maybe I am a little. In the finale we’re introduced to a deflated version of Huey, working for a little radio station with only one listener. Felicia’s been successful, but she’s paid for it in terrible ways. They’ve both been ripped off, losing significant pieces of their identity to an industry that sees only one color: Green. “Steal Your Rock and Roll,” should be as cautionary as, “Don’t Feed the Plants,” in Little Shop of Horrors, but that’s not how it works. These days it makes me think of the story Bryan told about how he transitioned from rock star to Broadway hero.

When his publisher asked if he’d ever thought about writing musicals, the rocker — and former Juilliard student — answered with a sarcastic, “What are they?” The publisher’s answer cut straight to the heart of the matter: “Musicals mean 23 of your songs are performed eight times a week.” Bryan’s instant, unflinching reply: “I’m interested.” 

On the flip side, music tourism in Memphis has been booming and more attractions come on line all the time. Folks in the business believe Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet played at least some part in all that, so I’ll take the good with the questionable. Besides, for all my grumbling about authenticity, revisionist history, and rock-larceny, I’ll take POTS energetic, lovingly-staged production over both the Broadway run and the tour.

It helps to have the smell of barbecue hanging on the breeze. It really does. 

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