J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Memphis on Great Performances

Celebrity casting might sell tickets initially, but their commitment to a production is usually limited. However, if a show hires Broadway actors by virtue of their talent, they stand a chance of keeping the original cast together for a long run. Happily such has been the case for Broadway’s Memphis, the Tony Award winning book musical that may no longer qualify as “new” but still remains fresh. Viewers can find out for themselves, either by visiting New York where it continues its crowd pleasing run or by tuning into PBS’s Great Performances, which broadcasts Memphis recorded live in performance with its original cast this coming Friday.

Huey Calhoun is one of the few white residents of Memphis who is either gutsy or innocent enough to frequent the African American clubs on Beale Street. While his presence makes club owner Delray Farrell understandably uneasy, everyone generally accepts the goofy kid because of his obvious affinity for their music. Smitten with Farrell’s sister Felicia, the big talker promises to get her on a major Memphis radio station. Commandeering the broadcast booth of the station owned by the upright and uptight Mr. Simmons, Calhoun lights up the proverbial phone lines spinning R&B for appreciative white teenagers. Suddenly, Calhoun has a steady job.

For a while, Calhoun actually has it all, including a relationship with Farrell. Yet he just does not understand how things really work in Memphis, whereas she is all too aware of reality. Although their love might be impossible in that specific time and place, their music is the future and it is quite catchy indeed.

Though the score by David Bryan (best known as a member of Bon Jovi, but also the composer of the Toxic Avenger musical) is a bit more orchestrated and well, Broadway-sounding than the genuine R&B and rock & roll of the period, it really delivers the goods. “Someday,” Felicia’s first hit in the context of the show, really does sound like it could have been a chart-topper, perhaps for Etta James. Ironically, one of the show’s highlight comes from Derrick Baskin as the mostly silent Gator, who blows everyone away with “Say a Prayer,” the riveting gospel-derived first act closer. However, the standout song is arguably Calhoun’s feature, “Memphis Lives in Me.” It is actually a twofer: musically it is a legitimate showstopper, but it also explains Calhoun’s character better than any of the previous dialogue.

Granted, Joe DiPietro’s book is not exactly the most original treatment of themes and issues that drive Memphis. Of course, clichés become clichés because they work, and audiences will most likely find themselves charmed by Memphis’s likable and vocally talented leads. Frankly, Chad Kimball’s weird affected, nasally accent and rabble rousing man-child demeanor suggests a pronounced Jerry Lee Lewis influence. Sounding totally Beale Street, Montego Glover takes a star-making turn as Felicia, displaying dramatic poise and powerhouse vocal chops. In supporting roles as Calhoun’s Beale Street friends, Baskin and James Monroe Iglehart also make a strong musical impression.

Memphis boasts far more memorable songs than nearly any of its Broadway contemporaries (most of whom have since come and gone), which is the ultimate measure of a musical. Slickly produced and tightly paced, Memphis looks great and sounds soulful. Christopher Ashley’s stage direction holds up well for those of us who saw it in-person during its early months and veteran television director Don Roy King effectively captures the spirit of the show through Broadway Worldwide’s multiple high def cameras. Recorded in January of last year and briefly seen in movie theaters for four days, King’s live-recorded Memphis is highly recommended for both fans and first time audiences when it airs this Friday (2/24) as part of the current season of Great Performances on PBS.

(Photos: Broadway Worldwide)

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