The gods of comedy, tragedy and friends’ matrimony conspired to put in me in Memphis, the city, last weekend, just after I saw Memphis, the musical. At a museum there, I listened to a recording of the first broadcast of an Elvis song, “That’s All Right,” on a popular Memphis radio show hosted by a fast-talking hillbilly DJ named Dewey Phillips. Mr. Phillips spoke so quickly, and in a such a high-pitched drawl, that it was impossible to make out chunks of what he said during his Elvis lead-in—not just for my Yankee ears, but also, according to my tour guide, for her presumably more acclimated ones, too.
This is all to say that Huey Calhoun—the blues-loving DJ with a fast-paced, high-pitched drawl who’s at the center of Broadway’s Memphis, which opened at the Schubert Theatre Monday night—is apparently based at least a bit in historical truth. But onstage, unlike in court, truth is not a defense. That’s a problem, because the indictments against this misbegotten musical are many. And Huey Calhoun, played by Chad Kimball, is chief among them.
First, though, the script. It’s a formulaic premise for a baldy commercial show (the music is by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, with lyrics by Bryan and Joe DiPietro, who also wrote the book), a saccharine civil-rights story of love and sex and race and music. A ne’er-do-well white redneck—that would be Calhoun—is a fan of black music in 1950s Memphis. He falls in love with Felicia, a beautiful black R&B singer, becomes a successful DJ, introduces black music to white people, makes Felicia a star and, thanks to his own hubris and intransigence, ends up sad, lonely and relegated to a third-tier radio station. Which is, somehow, played as a happy ending.
That nonsense ending is but one of the script’s problems. Why does Huey’s mother, who can’t stomach the notion that her boy is dating a “colored girl,” suddenly go to a black church to see the error of her ways? (“My boy is stupid/ He’s been shot by cupid/ So we gotta change our intolerant ways,” she sings, managing not to grimace at the lyrics.) When Felicia leaves Huey—she has an offer in New York and the promise of a non–Jim Crow life there—why does Calhoun sing a love song not to her but to Memphis, which has just pushed them apart?
Calhoun drives the show, and he is nearly unwatchable. The character is smarmy, lazy, entitled, controlling and, in the second act, just mean. (He’s also ridiculously dressed, in costumes by Paul Tazewell—whose eye-catching designs were one of the few high points of the recent Guys and Dolls.) As portrayed by Mr. Kimball, he’s also whiney, oddly unable to stand up straight—his knees are always bent a bit—and has an inexplicable tendency to play his scenes with his back turned downstage, looking at the audience over a shoulder. You don’t want to spend two hours in the same room with the guy, let alone root for him.
The rest of the cast, however, does its best to help. Montego Glover, as Felicia, the black singer Huey loves, makes the forgettable songs she’s given soar, and J. Bernard Calloway, as her protective brother, gives his character a convincing mix of pride, anger and compassion. The standout is James Monroe Inglehart as Bobby, a heavyset, reserved janitor who discovers he can sing and dance. (Oh, can he dance!) Serjio Trujillo’s choreography is the best part of the show—athletic, propulsive rock ’n’ roll moves for both the white kids and the black kids. But none of it is enough.
There is such a thing as a high-energy, in-your-face, commercial, cynical show that works—a good bad musical. (Legally Blonde comes to mind.) But Memphis isn’t one of them. It’s set on Beale Street, but it’s got no soul.
FOR SOME, the rock ’n’ roll revolution was about race. For others, it was about generation. Bye Bye Birdie, which inaugurated the Roundabout Theatre Company’s brand-new Henry Miller’s Theatre last week in the musical’s first Broadway revival since its original 1960-1961 run, is about the rock ’n’ roll generation gap—and, oddly enough, it comes down on the side of the parents.
I mean that in two ways. First, the musical is the rare pop-culture piece that celebrates the parents’ viewpoint: that something’s the matter with kids these days, that teen idols are loutish frauds and that happiness is to be found teaching English in Iowa. But, also, this production is your parents’ production—it’s a calm, sedate, respectful reconstruction of the original production that more often than not leaves the 2009 audience flat. (Including, I should say in their defense, my parents, who were kids back in the Birdie era.)
That’s too bad, because while one is reluctant to put Birdie in the same category as Casablanca or, more ridiculously, Hamlet, it shares with those two classics a permeation throughout popular culture. It’s filled with moments when you say, “Oh, right, this is where that comes from”: “We Love You, Conrad,” “Put On a Happy Face,” “Kids,” “The Telephone Hour.” Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ music and lyrics are delightful, nostalgic and insinuating. (Michael Stewart wrote the sappy but effective book.) Your toes tap and your head bobs for two hours.
Or, at least, your toes tap and your head bobs though the big production numbers, which are fantastic. Robert Longbottom, the director and choreographer, keeps his many dancers moving sexy, witty, ’50s-style steps. (Although it can be disconcerting to admire some well-executed teenage hip swiveling and then realize the hip-swiveler doesn’t yet shave.) The mod Mad Men set by Andrew Jackness is sleek and clever—especially the rotating booths in “The Telephone Hour”—and the color-coordinated pastel costumes by Gregg Barnes add to the vibrancy and visual pleasure.