Broadway purists lament the rise of the “jukebox musical,” but the Tony-winning hit Memphis makes the case—inadvertently—for using real old songs in shows about popular culture. A lot about Memphis works (and a lot doesn’t), but even if it were airtight as a piece of drama, the score would still be problematic. Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s boisterous piece of musical history is set in Memphis in the mid-’50s, and it follows gawky white kid Huey Calhoun (played by Chad Kimball) as he becomes a sensation playing “race music” on the radio in the segregated South. Which means that while some of Memphis’ songs are Broadway-style expressions of character and story, others are meant to be credible examples of ’50s R&B. But Bryan and DiPietro don’t have the knack for the latter. Regardless of the intent, Memphis’ music always sounds like showtunes, not retro-pop.
It’s also more than a little off, the way Memphis tries to tackle the problem of entrenched racism in a musical that works in such broad strokes—and with a white protagonist, no less. The story has Huey bringing his favorite music to a skeptical market, then watching helplessly as his black girlfriend’s fame eclipses his own. But Kimball’s performance as Huey is so kooky and exaggerated—like a mix between a street preacher, a street crazy, and George W. Bush—that it’s hard to buy him as a guy who’d be even be allowed on the air, let alone to buy him as a romantic lead.
Still, Kimball’s energy matches that of Memphis itself—the show is fast-paced and full of over-the-top gusto. And as the love interest Felicia Farrell, Montego Glover is a marvel, completely believable as the kind of classy belter who could cross over. Best of all, Memphis is staged inventively, zipping through time and locations with very few breaks in the action. The creative team fits a lot of information into a limited space, by placing performers in frames-within-frames or by having them pop up from the floor, to illustrate the music Huey sends out into the Southern night. By the time Memphis gets to its poignant ending—with the all-but-forgotten Huey working at a station on the edge of the dial—the bare stage of Huey’s exile contrasts poignantly with the full stage of his glory years. Then the show goes out strong, resolving many of its lingering questions about cultural exploitation via the powerhouse final number, “Steal Your Rock ’N’ Roll.” The jokes are corny, the plot is clichéd, and the music is largely unmemorable, yet Memphis still pops. Now imagine how good it could’ve been with a score by Stax.
Key features: Enthusiastic interviews with the creators and cast, and a fascinating explanation of how the show was recorded and shot for distribution.