There are at least a few arguably important things you can bitch about with regard to the new musical Memphis, about Huey Calhoun, an illiterate yet noble white DJ who champions the cause of black popular music down South in the 1950s and falls in love with the woman his perseverance turns into a recording star. Among them, Joe DiPietro’s original libretto’s historical accuracy is highly in question: though research indicates Huey’s directly based on a DJ of the period, Dewy Phillips (and not for attribution, but almost certainly upon Eastern DJ Alan Freed as well, both of whom were instrumental in bringing black music to the fore), Huey’s displays of liberalism, especially the on air manifestations (i.e. the devil-may-care prominence, dominance and dignity with which he features blacks) don't seem like enlightenment ahead of its time so much as blithe dramatic anachronism. For another, the score (lyrics by DiPietro, music by David Bryan), despite its rousing and infectious energy, is an unmemorable evocation of familiar pop vocabulary--each song sounding like many others of its type, having the visceral genre mojo but not the originality of profile that gives a musical theatre score iconic definition. And there's a degree of anachronism here too: the arrangements have been put through a somewhat more immediate filter than verisimilitude effortlessly supports; this is a contemporary composer’s consciously (I think) delivered impression of the period—i.e. what it might have been like if its authentic writers had access to a 2009 musical perspective. Because of these factors, you never quite lose yourself in the story; you're always aware of artists at work to create an illusion.
Curiously, though, because it's good work, whatever the loopholes and imperfections, delivered with full heart and a sense of mission as palpable as that of our hero, what you do lose yourself in is the exuberant spirit of the thing.
Furthermore, it's almost impossible not to succumb to the extraordinary conviction and talent of the cast, in particular the leads, Chad Kimball as Huey, Montego Glover as his discovery and romantic partner, J. Bernard Callaway as her protective brother, and CassMorgan as Huey’s increasingly enlightened mom.
I'd even go as far as to say that the material has tapped into an usual delivery of what I can only call artistic humanism from its director, Christopher Ashley, all of whose previous musical theatre credits have tended to embrace or enforce camp, or at the very least, caricature. Even his usual glib facility and affection for bold stroke gesture, while by no means abandoned or soft-pedaled, has been infused with an uncharacteristic humanist fervor. Whether his work here signifies that he's turned an important corner or merely that his connection to Memphis somehow allows the real, beating heart of him to be more exposed, he's nonetheless at the top of his game, outclassing even the best of his previous work.
It's perhaps only coincidence that Memphis comes along in a season where Finian's Rainbow is being revived, that it too is an “imperfectly” written show and that both the 2009 and 1947 entries explore the issue of racial prejudice, using music as, respectively, the explicit and implicit medium. Perhaps coincidental too is that America has reached a point in history where both shows can shine as examples of how incredibly far we've come, and how close at hand the ideal may yet be. Who knows? All that's undeniable is that both shows have landed in a unique period of hope.
that Broadway audiences, responding to both with unequivocal and unrestrained
joy, are prepared to revel in the message...
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