“MEMPHIS”

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“Memphis” — the toe-tapping, Tony-winning musical still packing ’em in at the Shubert Theatre — is about racial intolerance, forbidden love, and the price of success… and the young man who encounters them all, Memphis’ Huey Calhoun, a rhythm-and-blues-loving white kid who, over the course of the show, helps to integrate American music and becomes a popular deejay and TV host in the 1950s. [block_content]
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When we first meet Huey (who is based loosely on real-life music pioneer Dewey Phillips) he is slipping into an all-black nightclub in a part of Memphis that white folks don’t visit very much.  He just wants to hear the music — he’s grown tired of all the Pat Boone and Patti Page ditties that pass for “mood music” on the town’s lily-white radio stations — but pretty soon he’s falling for Felicia, the sister of the club’s beefy owner, and is convinced that she has the kind of singing voice that (with his help) will make her a star.
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He persuades his boss at the department store where he works to play some “race music” (as his boss, and other folks like him, call it), cajoles a deejaying gig out of the manager of the local radio station, and soon records are selling, ratings are skyrocketing, and — maybe most importantly — Felicia finds herself falling for him, too.  It’s a doomed relationship, though — whites just didn’t date blacks back then, at least not openly — and, predictably, they encounter problems along the way, including her own brother, who was afraid of what would happen from the start.
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Huey is portrayed by Chad Kimball in an overly-mannered performance that, at the same time, doesn’t make him any less compelling to watch.  (Oddly, there were times when it might have made him more compelling.)  Kimball appears to be too old for the role, particularly at the beginning, and what with his short hair and slitted eyes — and, yes, his Southern accent — reminded me now and then of George (“Dubya”) Bush, but he is, unmistakably, a fine performer, and it will be interesting to see what kind of role he tackles next.
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Montego Glover as Felicia sings like a dream, her thousand-watt smile could light up downtown Memphis all by itself, and she’s a fine actress, to boot; J. Bernard Calloway has some wonderful songs and scenes (a few of them intensely dramatic) as Delray, her big, no-nonsense brother; James Monroe Iglehart proves to be awfully light on his feet for such a large man as the radio station’s animated and fun-loving janitor; and, as Gator — the nightclub’s bartender — Derrick Baskin displays a voice as clear as day and as soft as spring rain (that is, when he finally opens his mouth, which he doesn’t do — he’s a real Silent Sam — till late).
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Once Huey achieves success, Cass Morgan — as his frowsy, widowed Ma — bursts out of her shell with a vengeance, and demonstrates the kind of singing chops that songs like her second act showstopper, “Change Don’t Come Easy”, demand.
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Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan (“Toxic Avenger”) has written a fun score, playwright Joe DiPietro has penned a book and lyrics that are alternately mirthful and melancholy, amusing and sad, Sergio Trujillo has staged all the dance numbers with gusto, and director Christopher Ashley keeps things moving nicely.
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Sure, the plot is a little corny, not to mention a wee bit dated (a musical about racism in the 1950s South TODAY?), the storyline is a tad thin (there are no character-enhancing subplots to speak of), and a few more subdued moments might have helped calm the old pulse rate some, but those are minor complaints, indeed.  “Memphis” is by no means a work of art, but it’s as entertaining as Broadway gets — and if, every so often, you don’t find yourself tapping your toes to the beat of the music… you’re just not paying attention.
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THEATRE REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien