Memphis @ Sam S. Shubert Theatre, New York

cast list
Jennifer Allen, Derrick Baskin, Brad Bass, Tracee Beazer , J. Bernard Calloway, Kevin Covert, Hillary Elk, Dionne Figgins, Rhett George, Montego Glover, James Monroe Iglehart , John Jellison, Chad Kimball, Michael McGrath, Cass Morgan, Sydney Morton, Vivian Nixon, John Eric Parker, Jermaine R. Rembert, LaQuet Sharnell, Ephraim Sykes, Cary Tedder, Danny Tidwell, Daniel J. Watts, Katie Webber, Charlie Williams, Danyelle Williamson

directed by
Christopher Ashley
Featuring one of the most talented casts on Broadway, the new musical Memphis, written by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (a member of the band Bon Jovi), who previously collaborated on last season’s The Toxic Avenger off-Broadway, manages to make a sizable impression despite somewhat limited artistic aims.

The musical centers around burgeoning Mississippi DJ Huey Calhoun, whose goal of bringing so-called “race music” to the masses is thwarted by a rather inhospitable bureaucracy within the music biz. Huey finds success on his own and manages to put talented young Felicia on the map, but the romantic attraction that develops between them ultimately complicates their paths to fame, leaving both Huey and Felicia wondering who’s using who on the way up the ladder.
Combining the competitive, soulful flavor of Dreamgirls with the jokey social progressivism of Hairspray, Memphis never quite establishes itself as a distinctly original show with a unique storyline. Nevertheless, a top-notch cast is led by Chad Kimball (who has his hammy radio personality shtick down to a T) as Huey and Montego Glover, who is a revelation in the role of Felicia, belting her way effortlessly through a host of challenging, rangy musical numbers.

DiPietro and Bryan, whose score for The Toxic Avenger showed promise without making much of an impression, have written a lively, hummable score that never quite knocks ’em dead but nevertheless makes its mark. If the show’s opening number, Underground, seems somewhat underpowered, there are a handful of other standout songs, including Glover’s Love Will Stand When All Else Falls and Kimball’s Memphis Lives In Me. Though there’s an overabundance of we’ve-been-oppressed-but-we’re-going-to-fight-our-way-up numbers, Bryan’s music is pleasing and consistently listenable.

Though sound design by Ken Travis threatens to allow an overamplified orchestra to drown out the cast’s voices, the rest of the supporting production team excel. David Gallo’s quick-moving, fluid scenery and Paul Tazewell’s colorful period costumes transport an audience directly to the 1950s setting that’s so important to the show’s success.

Directed with swift clarity by Christopher Ashley, who has a sense of the underlying humor pervading the troubled race relations of the show’s setting, and featuring snappy motown choreography by Sergio Trujillo, Memphis runs like a well-oiled machine.

Still, despite the creative team’s best efforts, there’s no overcoming one of the show’s central flaws – the fact that its ultimate message is one that’s totally indisputable. What discerning theatergoer will argue that racism is indeed a helpful and necessary practice? Ultimately, Memphis finds itself treading familiar ground, though it does so with genuine feeling and plenty of heart.

It’s a testament to the snappy pace of the final product that Memphis is ultimately a totally enjoyable night at the theatre. Overcoming a rather overdone plot and an obvious moral punchline, a first-rate cast of fantastic singers and dancers propels Memphis occasionally into the stratosphere, allowing an audience to forget its sporadic trouble spots for a moment and take a spirited trip down Tennessee way.

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