Race, sex and rock ‘n roll are a powerful combination in the new Broadway musical Memphis written by David Bryan, and Joe DiPietro. The sizzling new musical is a sheer delight and somewhat of a surprise with no star headliners, but don’t tell these passionate performers. The cast is an absolute knock out!
The songs by Bryan, Bon Jovi’s lead keyboardist, are a nice mix of R&B, soul, period pop, gospel and easy listening that make for a captivating blend. Last season Bryan joined forces off-Broadway with DiPietro on the winning musical The Toxic Avenger and here with Memphis they have improved their winning stride with a love story that takes us to the smoky underground clubs of segregated 1950 Memphis and the birth of an era.
The engaging story is an original loosely based on Dewey Phillips, a Memphis D.J. who was the first person to play an Elvis Presley record called “black-music” or “race music” on the radio. The DJ here is named Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball) and he falls in love with everything dangerous, when he stumbles downstairs into a smoky club following a haunting voice and discovers the beautiful black singer Felicia (Montego Glover). His vision, her voice and their story changes the sound of music forever. From Memphis the music swept the South, then to the North and next across the country. The emergence of rock ’n roll set against an integrated love story makes for a first rate tale told with emotionally gripping force.
The acting and the singing are fantastic. Chad Kimball leads the cast as the rebellious Calhoun with a performance that is the physical embodiment of his character’s dual nature. Look for him at awards time come May/June. This is a star making performance with heart and soul. He and Glover have combustible chemistry that is magnificent to behold. Look for her in the winner’s circle as well, but every member of the gloriously talented cast sings beautifully and each has a moment or more to shine. They dance Sergio Trujillo’s inventive choreography with an energetic style that gives the evening additional pop and sizzle.
Christopher Ashley’s confident direction guides the elements with an ever constant pull at the heart strings and he gets strong visceral performances that are both funny and moving in their authenticity.
The book by DiPietro, who also wrote I Love You, You’re Perfect Now Change, may be a bit slick and somewhat formulaic but he gets the job done and makes his points with compelling style.
Many on the creative team have been fine tuning Memphis for years making the show ready for Broadway. The two leads have been performing their roles since the first out of town tryout in 2003. They have had plenty of time to hone the show along with their performances and the work shows with a payoff that’s seamless.
By: Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dans Papers
Memphis is now playing on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. For tickets visit Telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200 or visit the box office.