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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Memphis in April

Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart
THE BROADWAY MUSICAL “Memphis” opened on tour last night in Schenectady. Immediately thereafter, Dick Clark died. A spokesman I just invented insists there was no relation between the two events.

Clark is mentioned in the musical, which charts the rise of unlikely DJ Huey Calhoun (brilliantly played by Bryan Fenkart) as he forces music by black performers onto the mainstream airwaves in Memphis in the mid 1950s. Calhoun eventually is poised for national success, and Clark is named as one of his competitors.

But Calhoun is foolishly self-destructive, mirroring the career of actual Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, who parlayed his enthusiasm for black R&B and a what’ll-he-say-next hillbilly persona into a few years of local popularity.

At one point in “Memphis,” Calhoun’s about-to-be boss, Mr. Simmons (the always-impressive William Parry), wants to assure the radio audience that Calhoun isn’t black. “Tell them what high school you attended,” he insists, which is book writer Joe DiPietro’s borrowing of a Dewey Phillips incident, in which the high-school ploy was used to reveal Elvis Presley’s race.

But there’s also a lot of Alan Freed in the Calhoun character, especially in Freed’s success in presenting concerts that put black musicians in front of white audiences.

“Memphis” is a good-looking production, with an ensemble of amazing dances putting their bodies to Sergio Trujillo’s exciting choreography and a core of singers who’ll break your heart with their talent and technique.

Except for a brief cameo from the voice of Patti Page, the show sports an original score by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan. It’s tricky paying tribute to a particular time and place, especially with the precedent of jukebox musicals – and, in the case of “Memphis,” a time and place whose music has been well imprinted onto our ears.

From the opening “Underground,” we’re treated to an accomplished rock score that has high points in “Say a Prayer,” “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls,” and the anthemic closer, “Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll,” but it’s hard to fight the sounds of Roy Brown, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and the like as they bubble up from our DNA. I wouldn’t envy Bryan the task, and I’m not surprised that he failed to deliver anything as arresting as the era actually produced.

At the heart of the story is forbidden love. Calhoun yearns for African-American singer Felicia Farrell (Felicia Boswell, in a powerhouse performance), and eventually gets her a chance to do a song on the air. She grows to return his affection, but wisely recognizes the folly of attempting to show their love in such a highly prejudiced society.

But there’s hardly a sense of threat. Even the violence committed near the end of Act One seems a token effort, making its point before the Broadway audience has a chance to feel uncomfortable. By watering down the fiery topic of race relations in 1950s Memphis, “Memphis” trivializes it, almost inviting us to think it’s all gone away. Talk to an Obama hater.

Credibility is further undermined by plot cliches. Calhoun’s rise is marked by improbable incidents. He’s about to be fired from a department-store job when it turns out that he has sold an unprecedented number of recordings. He’s about to be fired from a radio-station job when it turns out that he’s suddenly increased the listenership. It’s the stuff of such long-standing cliché that it creaks.

Even the finish, as Huey and Felicia have to face the impossibility of joining their lives, is a mere blip before the rip-roaring finale – one of several moments that warranted a more introspective, character-developing number.

Other excellent performers include Quentin Earl Darrington as Felicia’s brother, Delray; Rhett George as the silent Gator; and Will Mann as the especially endearing Bobby, sporting some unexpectedly complex dance moves along the way.

There’s gloss, there’s cliché, there’s a sound-alike score. But there’s a ensemble of amazing actor-singers at the heart of this production, and the energy and skill they pour into their performances is breathtaking. Add to it the work of the dance ensemble, and you still have a great evening of theater. We last saw Trujillo’s choreography in the recent run of “Jersey Boys,” and this is in the same impressive league. Leave your history hat at home and see it for the spectacle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

BA, Good writing. Very impressive anaylsis. -- Susan