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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Shubert


  J. Bernard Calloway and Montego Glover/ Ph: Joan Marcus

It took Memphis the better part of this decade to make it to Broadway. Audiences around the country—in Massachusetts, northern California, southern California, Seattle—saw various incarnations as the musical was reworked and rethought. Now the show has finally made it to New York, at the Shubert Theater. And after all that time and effort, it’s a pity it isn’t better.
Memphis is the fictional tale of a 1950s disc jockey who falls in love with black music and a black singer, and who tries to bring the music to white folk and the singer close to his white heart. The musical, with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and The Toxic Avenger) and music and lyrics by David Bryan (DiPietro’s collaborator on Toxic Avenger and a founding member of the Bon Jovi band) is inspired by real people, among them Dewey Philips, a white DJ who pioneered in playing rhythm and blues for a white radio audience. But perhaps “inspired” is too strong a word. The problem is there’s nothing inspired about Memphis, nothing magical or transporting. Generic might be a better description.
It’s the early 1950s and Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), a young, white ne’er-do-well is walking by a music club on Beale Street in downtown Memphis, “where the black folk play,” where “there ain’t no white folk cause they’re too damn scared.” He hears a black singer (Montego Glover) whose voice and music attracts him. At his menial job at a department store, he persuades the manager to let him play music in the record department, which regularly promotes the likes of Perry Como, and, of course, he brings in record buyers.
In Memphis, the blues radio station “only colored folks listen to” is high up on the radio dial, where few venture, while the white music—Patti Page, Roy Rogers—goes out from “the center of the dial.”  Well, you know what’s going to happen. Huey persuades the station manager to give him a chance, he plays the rhythm and blues, the white kids love it and he gets a job. Before long, he’s a big success; his radio program leads to a local TV show with black kids dancing on the air. He’s offered the chance to compete for a nationwide show with a guy from Philadelphia named Dick Clark. But his black dancers would have to be exchanged for white ones.
Huey and Felicia, the singer, have become involved in a surreptitious affair, at a time when interracial romance was illegal throughout the South and severely punished, both legally and otherwise. And when they are spotted kissing on a street at twilight, racist vigilantes attack them brutally. (Well, you kind of expected that. Theatergoers have been shown, since at least Show Boat in 1927, that “miscegenation,” to use the formal word, was more than frowned upon in the South. This is not to make fun of the horrors of racism; it’s to point out that Memphis’s book isn’t exactly creative or original.)
Then Felicia is offered a chance at a successful career up North, where she and Huey could live quietly. As a music producer points out, “Lena Horne is married to a Jewish fellow, but they are the epitome of discretion.” But Huey won’t have any of it; he’s a Memphis boy at heart, and that’s where he’ll stay, for better or worse.
Kimball (Lennon, Into the Woods) is fine as Calhoun, making his character—illiterate, egotistical, ambitious, determined, idiosyncratic—fully believable. But he plays Huey as if it were a featured role, not a star vehicle. He’s fine, but just that; there’s no magic, no charisma, no stage-filling presence, either in his persona or his voice.
The same can be said for Glover; she’s okay, but she seems more suited to being the lead’s best friend, not the lead. Her voice is good, both with rhythm and blues and gospel, but it’s, forgive me, generic.
The same is true for the rest of the cast, including Cass Morgan as Huey’s racist but kind-hearted Mama (her racism seems a product of simply living in 1950s Memphis), and J. Bernard Calloway as Delray, the club owner, who is Felicia’s brother. They’re okay. But that’s it. 
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