Stage: Memphis

The storyline of Memphis feels secondhand, but the cast and choreography are first-rate.

Shubert Theatre

New York

(212) 239-6200

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“A talented cast, stirring vocals, and athletic dance numbers” await those who travel to Memphis, said David Rooney in Variety. Set during the Tennessee city’s rhythm-and-blues boom in the 1950s, this new Broadway musical follows Huey Calhoun, a young white Memphis deejay. Huey spends his days spinning “race music” on a local radio show and his nights frequenting the black clubs on Beale Street, where he falls for an up-and-coming black singer named Felicia. Memphis’ cast and choreography are truly first-rate, but the story feels secondhand. Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan have produced a script that merely “restitches familiar threads” from past hits such as Hairspray and Dreamgirls, which both conveyed the transcendent powers of popular music far more convincingly.

“Sex and race and rock ’n’ roll” are ingredients that ought to make for an incendiary piece of musical theater, said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. But in the case of Memphis, they “barely generate enough heat to warp a vinyl record.” DiPietro and Bryan’s “sanitized” book too often glosses over the era’s racial tensions. When Huey starts spinning R&B records in place of popular white music, there’s surprisingly little backlash, and he “instantly has all of Memphis getting down.” Huey’s mother, initially aghast at his love for Felicia, quickly gets over her racial prejudices and is soon leading a spirited gospel singalong. Though Bryan’s score “competently simulates” the music of the era, it completely lacks the most crucial ingredient: “authentic soul.”

Thankfully, the cast of Memphis knows “how to make good entertainment out of less than great material,” said Michael Feingold in The Village Voice. Director Christopher Ashley has assembled a “first-class rescue team,” led by Montego Glover as Felicia. Possessed of “beauty, charm, and a gigantic powerhouse of a voice,” Glover is a star in the making. In the lead role, Chad Kimball turns in a “fascinating piece of character creation.” The chance to discover such performers keeps the otherwise “uninspired trek” to Memphis from feeling like a road to nowhere.

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