The sensuous, soulful sound of rhythm 'n' blues hits the audience right from the start of "Memphis," the exhilarating new musical now shaking Broadway's Shubert Theatre. Take a deep breath as the curtain rises because the exuberance doesn't stop.
But the show, which opened Monday, is as ambitious as it is entertaining, informative in a quasi-historical way as well as emotionally affecting in its parade of thoroughly engaging characters.
The time is the early 1950s when singers such as Perry Como and Patti Page ruled mainstream radio but in the black nightspots on Beale Street a different kind of song, so-called "race" music, rocked the house.
Into one such juke joint tumbles Huey Calhoun, a poor but street-smart white boy with the heart of a hustler and a love for this music. It's a passion that eventually will power him into a job as the most important disc jockey in Memphis — the man who brought black music to a white audience.
Hugh's rise to pop-music prominence coincides with a more personal tale: his affair with a black club singer named Felicia, definitely a problem during a time when interracial marriage was illegal in many states.
Book writer Joe DiPietro skillfully intertwines these stories. And with composer David Bryan (they co-wrote the lyrics), the two have managed to create a dandy original score that is as tuneful as it is theatrical, the very essence of what a Broadway musical should be. Bryan, keyboard player for Bon Jovi, has a gift for effortless melody and the orchestrations, which he co-wrote with Daryl Waters, makes the music — check out those horns — sound as if it could have first been heard in the '50s.
But then it helps also that "Memphis" has been expertly cast and is superbly sung, particularly by its two leads, Chad Kimball as the brash, irrepressible Huey and a striking Montego Glover as Felicia. Kimball has a deceptive baby-face charm that masks a gritty, soul-tinged voice and the hard edge of Huey's stubborn personality that is not entirely likable.
Glover is quite a revelation, too, as the ambitious Felicia, a singer who sees a chance for a recording contract as her way out of Memphis and into the big time. The actress has a commanding stage presence and can curl her voice around a song, whether it is the rockin' "Underground," which opens the show, or a cry of pain called "Colored Woman."
Director Christopher Ashley has surrounded his stars with a talented, distinctive supporting cast: J. Bernard Calloway as Felicia's protective brother; Derrick Baskin as a loyal if silent club employee; James Monroe Iglehart as a large, late-blooming singer; Cass Morgan as Huey's initially unsupportive mother; and Michael McGrath as a hard-boiled radio station owner.
"Memphis" is a big show with a large cast (more than two dozen actors) and David Gallo's multiple sets ranging from that Beale Street dive to radio and television studios. But Ashley makes it all move with surprising speed.
Even Gallo's settings swirl effortlessly, but then the musical has an innate energy, much of it supplied by Sergio Trujillo's propulsive choreography. There's a sinuous, sexy quality to the dancing that perfectly matches the music, and the dancers are among the hottest in town.
A bit of "Dreamgirls" and maybe even "Hairspray" can be found in the show's show-biz and race relations roots. But make no mistake, "Memphis" is its own musical, a potent reminder of what can happen when fine song and dance combine with a compelling story.
Nice to know a new musical can actually surprise you. Though it starts on a familar note and sparks deja vu at other points, "Memphis" eventually finds its own voice and beat, and wins you over with its sheer enthusiasm and exuberant performances.
The show has been seen in various stages since 2003 and has finally landed on Broadway.
The plot follows Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), a hillbilly-type in love with rhythm and blues who becomes a popular deejay and TV dance-show host. Based on actual disk jockeys, Huey is rash and sorta crazy, prone to shouting the nonsensical, if joyful, "Hockadoo" as he brings black music to white folks like himself in 1950s Memphis.
The show captures an exciting period as tastes moved from vanilla Perry Como and Patti Page to R&B and rock 'n' roll. It was a dangerous time, too; not everyone embraced a color-blind radio dial or world. That includes Huey's ongoing relationship with a black singer, Felicia (Montego Glover), whom he discovers in a Beale St. joint, falls in love with and vows to make a mainstream star.
Director Christopher Ashley ("Xanadu") spins the elements into a gleaming, good-looking production. It flows with cinematic finesse and makes the most of Joe DiPietro's slim, sometimes manipulative book. Sergio Trujillo's choreography has verve and imagination - as when Double Dutch jump roping comments on racial tensions.
The songs by DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, the team behind "The Toxic Avenger," are an easygoing mix of R&B, soul and period pop. A few tunes are catchy enough to stay in your head for days.
Kimball is a walking syllabus of edgy quirks as Huey, which may be unsettling to some. But he sings and moves with such enormous confidence that he drives the whole production. Glover is dazzling as the love interest and crossover singer.
Along with the excellent ensemble, featured actors lend fine support: J. Bernard Calloway, as Felicia's overprotective brother; Michael McGrath, as a savvy radio station owner; Cass Morgan, as Huey's narrow-minded mother, and James Monroe Iglehart, as a burly janitor with a big voice and fleet feet.
"Memphis" doesn't break too much new ground, but it's entertaining and blasts you out the door humming, bopping and happy as all, well, Hockadoo.
The author of "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and the keyboard player from Bon Jovi have hatched a really good musical.
I'll let you mull over this sentence for a second.
"Memphis" came to New York with all sorts of warning bells. The creative team, for one. Book writer and co-lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer David Bryan may have teamed before -- on "The Toxic Avenger" -- but that didn't make them naturals for a show about a white deejay (Chad Kimball) crossing the color line in 1950s Tennessee.
The cast? Kimball's most recent Broadway credits are the bombs "Lennon" and "Good Vibrations." Other actors rated only minor pings on the critical radar, like James Monroe Iglehart's acclaimed turn as the Cowardly Lion in the Encores! revival of "The Wiz."
Finally, "Memphis" bummed around the country for a good half-decade, playing everywhere from Massachusetts to California -- would it be overcooked?
In this case, practice makes perfect. Or at least it makes a zippy, exuberant musical -- one that relies exclusively on steadfastly "classic" values: catchy songs, heaping spoonfuls of inspirational moments and tear-jerking schmaltz, and committed performers at the top of their game.
At the core of the show is the complicated love the scrappy striver Huey Calhoun feels for both "race music" and feisty soul singer Felicia Farrell (Montego Glover).
Huey (inspired by real-life Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips) is the latest in a long line of endearing musical-theater rogues, and Kimball isn't afraid to portray some of this operator's less-stellar side. (The actor's nasal speaking voice and shifty posture recalls Christian Slater, not your typical matinee lead.)
But the show is more about an era than a person, and so it generously spreads the goods among its cast. Iglehart, J. Bernard Calloway (as Felicia's brother, Delray), Derrick Baskin (Gator) and Cass Morgan (Huey's mom) all get notable solos, while Glover is terrific throughout, embodying rhythm and blues as she effortlessly switches from sexy to funny to emotional.
And the songs these gifted performers are given aren't too shabby, either.
If Bon Jovi's Bryan picked up one thing in his decades of playing arenas, it's how to write hooks and anthemic choruses. He just ladles them out here, all the while paying homage to the variety of sounds coming out of black Memphis clubs at that time. Purists may snicker, but this score works perfectly on Broadway.
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo -- easily topping his overrated work from "Jersey Boys" -- and director Christopher Ashley wrap it all together with smart, brisk efficiency.
"Memphis" isn't out to revolutionize musical theater, but its embrace of old-fashioned pleasures is immensely gratifying. Nowhere is this approach more obvious than in the emotionally charged "Colored Woman." Alone in the spotlight, Glover simultaneously lifts up the show and stops it dead in its tracks. Of such thrills, Broadway is made.
Sex and race and rock ’n’ roll made for a potent, at times inflammatory, combination in the 1950s, when the new musical “Memphis” is set. But there’s no need to fear that a conflagration will soon consume the Shubert Theater, where the show opened on Monday night. This slick but formulaic entertainment, written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, barely generates enough heat to warp a vinyl record, despite the vigorous efforts of a talented, hard-charging cast. While the all-important music, by Mr. Bryan of Bon Jovi, competently simulates a wide range of period rock, gospel and rhythm and blues, the crucial ingredient — authentic soul — is missing in action.
Dare I suggest that “Memphis” is the Michael Bolton of Broadway musicals? I do.
The amiable Chad Kimball plays Huey Calhoun, a high school dropout who stumbles into a black nightclub on Beale Street one happy night, seduced by the sound of the music he hears rumbling beneath his feet. The bar’s patrons eye him warily, but when Huey sits down at the piano and bangs out a few raucous chords, hearts are softened. Soon Huey is leading everyone in “The Music of My Soul,” a howling anthem celebrating his lifelong affinity for African-American music.
That’s how things happen for this smooth-talking rebel, a fictionalized version of pioneering radio figures of the period, perhaps primarily Dewey Phillips, the Memphis D.J. who was the first to spin a record by Elvis Presley. At the department store where he works stocking shelves, Huey charms the manager into letting him take over the record department. Deep-sixing Perry Como, he soon has the white clientele twitching their hips and snapping up 45s of a song about scratching a certain itch.
Huey is fired, but the process is repeated at a local radio station where he applies for a gig. The station manager isn’t interested, so Huey locks himself in the booth when the smarmy D.J. on the air goes for a break. Throwing on a hot platter, he instantly has all of Memphis getting down. “Everybody wants to be black on a Saturday night,” runs the chorus. This sentiment might be expected to raise more than a little hell in the South of the era, but Huey snags the job and finds a vocation.
Although the specter of racism is dutifully evoked repeatedly, the book for “Memphis,” by Mr. DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”), is predictable and sanitized in its depiction of sweet soul music dissolving bigotry in the hearts of white listeners. Huey’s Mama, Gladys (Cass Morgan), is initially aghast at both her son’s job (“Your calling is playing race music for white folks?”) and his transgressive love for Felicia (Montego Glover), a black singer whose career he hopes to promote on his show (“She ain’t nothin’ but a colored girl”).
But guess what? By Act II Mama’s leading a gospel singalong. And if you imagine that the sweet-faced bartender at that Beale Street club, mute for years after witnessing his father’s lynching as a child, will not find his voice at a crucial moment, you really need to get out more.
Mr. Bryan and Mr. DiPietro, who share credit for the competent but cliché-ridden lyrics, also collaborated on the Off Broadway musical “The Toxic Avenger,” a cheesy-movie spoof that might have seemed fresher if the gimmick hadn’t been worked so many times. “Memphis” also feels like a cover version of a song you’ve heard done better before. The frothy hit “Hairspray” already celebrated the power of popular music to close the racial divide, in that case in Baltimore in the early 1960s. That musical also featured a subplot about an interracial relationship and a climax set during the filming of an “American Bandstand”-type television show.
“Memphis,” directed with dispatch by Christopher Ashley and enlivened by plenty of energetic choreography by Sergio Trujillo, is more sincere but little more probing in its exploration of the tensions between whites and blacks of the period. Mr. DiPietro invokes the exploitation of black musicians by white businessmen in a few broad strokes, and Huey and Felicia endure a savage beating at the hands of white thugs. But a restorative song of uplift always seems to be around the corner. “Memphis” is not a comedy, but it’s still a cartoon.
Despite all these obvious drawbacks, the show holds the attention through the efforts of its appealing cast. Mr. Kimball is a quirky, boyish presence, with a thick, honeyed drawl that slides away when he breaks into song. His voice is strong, with just enough real ache in it to supply the feeling that the songs sometimes do not.
Ms. Glover, beautiful and poised, brings a spark of toughness to her role as Felicia. She acts with a focused clarity and sings with intensity, although exaggerated melismas are becoming a tiresome bit of vocal gymnastics. (Ms. Glover brings down the house with her big Act I solo, “Colored Woman,” but the effort is obvious.) If the romance between Huey and Felicia never really catches fire, it’s more the fault of the spotty writing than of the performers.
Offering solid support are Ms. Morgan as Huey’s sour, suspicious mother, soon softened; J. Bernard Calloway as Felicia’s protective brother, Delray; and James Monroe Iglehart as Bobby, a janitor at the radio station whom Huey also gives a shot as a performer. Throughout “Memphis” both the singing and the dancing are accomplished — something not to be taken for granted this season, it appears, in musicals set during the early days of rock.
All the performers do their best to infuse Mr. Bryan and Mr. DiPietro’s score with the earthy vibrance it fundamentally lacks, despite the obvious pop craftsmanship. At various points in the show Mr. Bryan evokes the powerhouse funk of James Brown, the hot guitar riffs of Chuck Berry, the smooth harmonies of the Temptations, the silken, bouncy pop of the great girl groups of the period. But despite all attempts to light a fire under the songs, at no point are you likely to confuse Mr. Bryan and Mr. DiPietro’s smooth facsimiles of period rock ’n’ roll and R&B for the rollicking real thing.
Broadway has been eerily quiet about new musicals this season. That just changed - in a very big way - with "Memphis," arguably the best black musical written by white guys since "Dreamgirls."
The extraordinary show, which crept into town with little fanfare and nonstop talent, tells the high-stakes story of Huey Calhoun, an irrepressible poor-white DJ hipster (Chad Kimball) who popularizes "race music" in '50s Tennessee in the years before Elvis made it safe for America's children.
Imagine if "Jersey Boys" had new music to go with its cultural history, or if "Hairspray" were not a happy cartoon about race relations. "Memphis" has a passionate, exuberantly believable book by Joe DiPietro (best known, oddly enough, for the light crowd pleaser "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change"). The remarkably rich and raucous character-driven songs, by Bon Jovi cofounder David Bryan, lovingly capture the insinuating, earthy authenticity of rhythm and blues, gospel and early rock and roll without sounding derivative.
The moody and inventive production has been put together with down-and-dirty elegance by director Christopher Ashley, choreographer Sergio Trujillo, set designer David Gallo and costume designer Paul Tazewell, who let the musical and dramatic and pop-up scenic discoveries peel off one another at a pace breathless and disciplined, original and authentic. When a singer lets loose - and, eventually, they all do - the vocal pyrotechnics come from deep within the storytelling.
We first meet Huey in 1951, when he bursts into an all-black club in the basement of what his song calls "the dark side of town." Nobody - not the gorgeous dancers with the taffy-pulling limbs nor the wary owner (the formidable J. Bernard Calloway) - wants him there stealing what he declares as "the music of my soul." Huey falls for the owner's sister (Montego Glover, a revelation of intelligent sensuality), but an interracial couple is big trouble.
Kimball - with his porkpie hat, bitter-lemon voice and motor-mouth patter - makes us believe that Huey is inventing himself right along with shock-jock radio, early TV and seismic racial change. After a shocking weekend when a justice of the peace refused to marry an interracial couple in Louisiana, "Memphis" is not just Broadway's news.
You might expect a show called Memphis, with a score by rock keyboardist David Bryan and a book by Joe DiPietro, whose last Broadway outing was the jukebox musical All Shook Up, to be an homage to Elvis Presley. It isn't — and for that, the Presley estate owes Bryan and DiPietro a debt of gratitude.
The focus of this well-intentioned hokum-fest, which opened Monday at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, is rather the "race music" that paved the way for the King of Rock 'n' Roll and his progeny. Set in the 1950s in the city that put Elvis on the map, Memphis (** out of four) traces the star-crossed creative and romantic partnership between a young white man who loves rhythm & blues and a black woman who loves to sing it.
For those unaware of the problems this relationship could pose in the Jim Crow South, sources of racial tension are helpfully reinforced.
The white folks all seem to have wandered in out of an early episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. The black guys and gals can typically be found either swinging around a nightclub or whooping it up in church.
Still, our intrepid hero, an illiterate mama's boy named Huey Newton, falls for Felicia Farrell, the siren-voiced sister of a club owner, and woos her by landing a job as a DJ at a mainstream radio station. Though the manager is dubious about Huey's choices — a typical tune is titled Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night— the ratings go through the roof. Before long, Huey has a popular local television show, and Felicia has a shot at a big-time record deal.
Storm clouds loom, though, and chasing them, Memphis veers from cloying earnestness to obvious satire.
Part of the problem is that the leads seem incompatible for reasons having nothing to do with skin color. It's tough to see how Montego Glover's elegant Felicia could be attracted to Chad Kimball's buffoonish Huey, who suggests a cross between an aging stand-up comic and a parody of George W. Bush in his frat-boy heyday.
Glover gives Felicia an endearing sweetness and sings powerfully. But like her castmates, she's saddled with music and lyrics (the latter co-written by Bryan and DiPietro) that at best play like retreads of old R&B hits. Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi, also invests some songs with power-ballad melodrama.
Wrapping one such number, Colored Woman, Glover holds a note so long that you half expect Simon Cowell to leap out of the audience, screaming, "Enough!"
The wasted talent also includes the robust-voiced James Monroe Iglehart, cast as Huey's black buddy, and an ensemble of charismatic young dancers who lend added exuberance to Sergio Trujillo's kinetic choreography.
Let's hope they all have equal opportunity to find gigs more deserving of their gifts.
A talented cast, stirring vocals, athletic dance numbers and vigorous direction supply crowd-pleasing elements in the lively new musical, "Memphis," as evidenced by the waves of appreciation coming off the audience. But there's also a nagging predictability to this story of a white DJ who brings rockin' rhythm and blues from black Beale Street to the mainstream in 1950s Tennessee. The show is entertaining but synthetic, its telepic plotting restitching familiar threads from "Hairspray" and "Dreamgirls," while covering fictitious ground adjacent to that of recent biopic "Cadillac Records."
The performances in Christopher Ashley's production are all writ large, but they are not without soul or sincerity. That makes you wish the actors had better material than writer and co-lyricist Joe DiPietro's superficial book, which connects the dots in such a perfunctory way -- especially in the weak second act -- that the outcome of pretty much every scene is evident the minute it gets going.
The score by Bon Jovi founding member and keyboardist David Bryan is generic but well-crafted, with toe-tapping beats and driving horn lines, as well as a keen ear for rock, pop, blues and gospel idioms, even if they do play fast and loose with the era. Trouble is, the songs are more imitative than inspired. They can't escape the feel of accomplished pastiche -- albeit with frequent concessions to a more modern brand of big-belt diva anthem -- and the cliche-drenched lyrics limit any emotional transport.
Loosely based on pioneering DJ Dewey Phillips, Huey Calhoun is played by Chad Kimball as an out-there caricature that takes some getting used to. The formerly baby-faced actor from "Lennon" and the 2002 "Into the Woods" is looking a bit more weathered. He appears to be channeling Billy Bob Thornton in "Sling Blade," with George W. Bush and Jerry Lee Lewis, adopting a nervous physicality that's more hick than hipster. Yet it kind of works. He's an odd duck, but his reckless-rebel streak seems authentic, and his passion for black music and for one black singer in particular is consuming.
That would be Felicia (Montego Glover). Huey first hears her bumping out gutsy opener "Underground" in a dive bar run by her protective big brother Delray (J. Bernard Calloway). "Ain't no white folks here -- cause they too damn scared!" sings Delray, but Huey more or less wins the wary bunch over with the bluesy "The Music of My Soul."
The physical elements at times seem crowded on the Shubert stage, but David Gallo's set effectively blends dusty window panes and crumbling plaster work with video detailing to evoke multiple locations, from Delray's joint below street level to the shabby home Huey shares with his God-fearing waitress Mama (Cass Morgan) to the radio station where the illiterate kid finagles a DJ job. Paul Tazewell's flavorful period costumes and Howell Binkley's full-bodied lighting contribute to give the show a vibrant dynamic.
Act one zips along as Huey starts spinning "race" records for a parched white youth audience previously being fed Patti Page and Roy Rogers. Where DiPietro's book could have used more robust development is in the mutual attraction and cautious beginnings of Huey's relationship with Felicia, whose singing career he helps kickstart. Much as Kimball's characterization is compelling and based at least in part on Phillips' unconventional style and yokel manner, Huey is such a gonzo guy it's hard to perceive what sleek beauty Felicia might see in him. Nor is she portrayed as sufficiently career-driven to latch on for professional gain.
That lack of emotional grounding means when violent rednecks and anti-integration laws threaten to keep them apart, the audience is more keyed into the broader social injustice than the romance. Such obstacles weigh heavily in the sluggish second act, as Felicia gets a recording offer in New York, and uncompromising Huey bristles at the terms of his transition from Memphis TV to a national platform. As the dramatic stakes get higher, the book becomes more sketchy and unconvincing.
However, the actors frequently lend conviction that's absent in the writing. Both Kimball and Glover have stayed with the show since incarnations as far back as 2003, as have Calloway and Derrick Baskin as a bartender rendered mute after watching his father get lynched. In DiPietro's formulaic hands, that information serves only to telegraph a heart-tugging moment later on, just as we know uptight Mama is bound to loosen up sooner or later. But most of the performers dignify their stereotypes.
Glover, in particular, elevates her role with her powerful pipes and tender-tough attitude. One of the survivors of last summer's unwatchable "The Wiz" revival, James Monroe Iglehart scores big with the crowd as a rotund janitor who seizes the spotlight with the boisterous number, "Big Love."
Many of the featured singers are music legends or identifiable facsimiles of them (Perry Como, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, the Platters) and Ashley introduces them via inventive staging. He chronicles the tentative steps toward breaking down black-white barriers in a Baptist church or on a street where girls are jumping rope with a tidy economy. And while it grows repetitive, Sergio Trujillo's muscular choreography and the high-energy dance ensemble provide a big assist in maintaining some momentum even when the storytelling flags.