Monday, March 19, 2012

Memphis: A Musical for Its Time

The hit Broadway musical Memphis, which recently aired on PBS with its original cast intact, has an irresistible swing. Joe DiPietro’s book presents a simplified version of how rhythm and blues crossed over to attract white audiences in Memphis in the 1950s, with characters standing in for demographic groups and points of view. But you feel as you do at certain movies that dramatize key moments in the chronicle of popular music like American Hot Wax or Cadillac Records: the show gets it right emotionally even if you don’t buy it as history, and you get caught up in the visceral excitement of the subject matter. It does a hundred things wrong and still delivers an awfully good time.

Chad Kimball plays Huey Calhoun, a white ne’er-do-well who ventures into a black club in his home town in 1951 to hear up close the glorious music he’s been sneaking illicit listens to since he was a boy. There he discovers Felicia (Montego Glover), who looks like a black baby doll with bright button eyes and marcelled jet hair but sings gospel and R&B in an exuberant bourbon-and-molasses voice. Huey can’t hold down a job as a department-store stock boy (he gets distracted and breaks the merchandise) but when he convinces his boss to let him try out in the music department he causes a small-time sensation playing “race records.” The ones he sells to turned-on white customers are his own, of course; the store doesn’t carry music that isn’t white – and his employer is too scandalized to keep him on. But he talks his way into a DJ spot on a local radio station with a combination of sheer bravado and unarguable results: listeners who haven’t heard anything like the kind of music he spins keep calling in to request more. Eventually he gets the station manager (Michael McGrath), a pragmatist with a terrible sidewall haircut, to let Felicia perform one of her songs live on the air, and her brother Delray (J. Bernard Calloway), who owns the club where Huey first saw her, starts producing her records. But Delray has trouble warming up to Huey. When he and Felicia start a romance, Delray foresees trouble, and he’s right. Though they have to sneak around, mostly after dark, they aren’t careful enough, and the first act ends with redneck thugs beating both of them up in the street. (They aim the worst blows, administered with a baseball bat, at Felicia.) The second act finds Huey as the host of an American Bandstand-style local TV show that gets away with showcasing African American singers and dancers, and Felicia setting her sights on a crossover career in New York City, where she and Huey can live safer lives.

J. Bernard Calloway and Montego Glover
The score – music by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, lyrics by Bryan and DiPietro – is undeniably crafted for Broadway but it includes some rousing big numbers. Huey gets two self-defining songs, “The Music of My Soul” (which explains what drew him to Delray’s club) and “Radio” (which arrives close to intermission). “The Music of My Soul” enshrines an apple-of-temptation moment, like the song from the musical Jelly’s Last Jam in which the child who will grow into Jelly Roll Morton violates the rules of his aristocratic Creole upbringing and mixes it up with lowdown New Orleans pop culture. The platter that lands Huey the radio-station gig is called “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night,” which cleverly makes the show’s point that black music is destined to cross the color bar. (Inevitably, there’s a civics-class side to this idea: once Huey has introduced R&B to white kids, we get an interlude where a white girl persuades some black girls to let her skip rope with them. Fortunately Memphis doesn’t include very much of this sort of thing.) Glover has most of the best songs: “Someday” (Felicia’s first single), “Stand Up” (which ends on a spectacular gospel-style high note that she seems to hold onto for a sweet eternity) and especially “Colored Woman,” which justly brings down the house. It’s Felicia’s self-defining ballad, summing up the limitations of black woman’s existence in a white world as her mother laid them out for her but suggesting the eagerness of a woman from her generation to challenge those conventions. In addition to the marvelous Montego Glover, the cast features three African American performers with enormous voices: Calloway, James Monroe Iglehart as Bobby (janitor at the radio station and a Delray’s regular) and especially Derrick Baskin as Gator, Delray’s bartender. The role of Gator is one of those terrible symbolic concepts. He hasn’t spoken a word since, as a little boy, he saw his daddy lynched, but at the end of act one, when Huey carries Felicia into the club, badly beaten, and Delray, enraged at him for putting his sister in danger, lunges at him, it’s Gator who stops the fight with a song of hope and freedom, “Say a Prayer.” God knows this idea shouldn’t work; just describing the set-up is embarrassing. But it’s a good number, and Baskin’s singing catches you by the throat. Memphis certainly isn’t subtle but at moments like these there’s a kind of pop genius at work in it.

One song that gets audiences cheering is truly cringe-worthy, however: “Change Don’t Come Easy,” performed in the second act by Huey’s mama (Cass Morgan) with Bobby, Gator and Delray as back-up. Mama Calhoun is a good ol’ gal, a widow who lives low-rent with her son and holds down a job as a waitress. They have a warm relationship but when she finds Felicia in her home she throws her out, reminding Huey that she runs a good Christian house. But she grows more tolerant as the years go by (the musical roughly spans the fifties) and she begins to understand his love of soul music when she follows his advice and attends a black Baptist service, where the song we hear is called “Make Me Stronger.” This whole subplot is phony as hell – a stage conceit built around the kind of cutesy cartoon character Broadway audiences always fall for. (It may not be Cass Morgan’s fault entirely that she’s so insufferable, but I wanted to throw something squishy at her.)

Chad Kimball and Montego Glover
Huey is a fascinating hero for a musical. He behaves instinctively with the kind of courage that comes from deep-seated democratic convictions so at odds with those of the culture he grew up in that he’s freakish. Yet for the same reason he’s dangerously shortsighted. He falls so utterly in love with R&B that he doesn’t see any obstacle to turning on every other white boy and girl to the music of his soul, and his impulses are right. But he also falls passionately in love with Felicia and he figures that eventually the racist world around him will see things his way – and of course his impulses there are dead wrong. Even after she’s beaten (the blows damage her badly enough to cut off any chance that she can ever get pregnant) he persists in thinking that his love can keep them both safe. When his TV show takes off he tells her that they can go public with their relationship because they’re now too famous -- and he’s too beloved in Memphis -- to draw any further violence from rednecks. The combination of his obstinate optimism and his refusal to imagine another life for himself outside Memphis dooms their romance.

Kimball is a charismatic performer but his acting is so stylized, both physically and vocally, that he seems almost Martian. He bends his knees and struts, throwing back his shoulders and throwing out his ass; he always seems to be at some peculiar angle with the stage floor. When he makes his first appearance on the stairs leading down to Delray’s club, you figure Huey is hammered, but eventually you realize that he’s playing every scene that way. And he has a way of emphasizing the last syllable of a word and then holding onto it for dear life, so that the last consonant stretches out for an extra couple of beats (“I’m gonna put you on the radi-oh-oh-oh”). He’s a hell of a lot better when he sings, though, and he delivers the eleven o’clock number, “Memphis Lives in Me” (which is also hands down the best song in the score), with so much brio that he redeems all the unreasonable affectation in his performance. When I saw him sing it on Broadway last season he was a knockout. In the TV transcription he embroidered it a little too much, and his voice seemed a trifle ragged; he didn’t execute the high trill, switching octaves on the last few bars, to bring it home. It still provided a lot of pleasure.

Memphis, which is directed energetically if not especially inventively by Christopher Ashley and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, is upbeat in a way that doesn’t make you feel foolish for going along with it. Its hopeful presentation of American cultural history feels distinctly of its time; it may be the first Obama-era Broadway musical.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. This looks like a very exciting production to watch. Are there any plans to bring it overseas?