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.
But the book scenes—and even the more intimate songs—are duds, sapped of energy, conviction or, in many cases, the dialogue’s humor. “It’ll make Birdie the hottest soldier since Joan of Arc,” to pick one example, got not a titter on the night I attended.
(A quick recap of the plot, for those who’ve somehow missed it: Albert Peterson, an erstwhile aspiring English teacher, is a songwriter and manager with an overbearing mother, a secretary-slash-girlfriend and one big client, Conrad Birdie, an Elvis-inspired teen idol about to be inducted into the Army. In an inspired PR gimmick, they pick a member of Birdie’s fan club—Kim McAfee, of Sweet Apple, Ohio, who has a nutty father flummoxed by teenagers—to be the recipient of one final kiss from Birdie, bestowed on The Ed Sullivan Show. Hijinks ensue.)
John Stamos does his best Dick Van Dyke impression as Albert Peterson, and Gina Gershon, who lacks the skills to impersonate Chita Rivera, is at least eager and game as the secretary Rosie. (Game enough to strip down to lacy black underwear for no particular reason near the start of the second act.) The kids are more than all right, especially Allie Trimm as Kim McAfee.
Jane Houdyshell is, as always, funny and charismatic as Albert’s mother (though it’s tough to understand why the all-American Mae Peterson, horrified that her son might marry Spanish Rose, is played as a Yiddische Mama). Bill Irwin is hilarious, employing his clowning shtick liberally and making Harry McAfee sound like Paul Lynde, who originated the role, as channeled by Martin Short, arms waving, legs caving, voice flying high and low. He’s also in a different show, performing a vaudeville that seems to have wandered in from another theater, or a different decade.
That sloppiness in Mr. Longbottom’s direction is evident throughout the show. (When Sweet Apple goes weak at the knees for Birdie’s first performance there, should it really be the one black teenager who gets the line about being reduced to “a snarling, raging, panting jungle beast?”)
Birdie is a silly, light-as-air construction, but his version rarely takes flight.
I’VE NEVER TAKEN an acting class, and after seeing Annie Baker’s terrific new Circle Mirror Transformation, which opened early last week at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, I can’t decide if I’m desperate to enroll in one or terrified of what might happen there.
This small, meticulously constructed and very funny drama transpires through six weekly community-center acting classes in the small (and fictional) town of Shirley, Vermont. Four students and one New Agey instructor engage in a series of acting exercises, trying to count to 10 aloud and undirected without speaking over each other; reciting each other’s life stories; completing each other’s sentences; impersonating beds, trees and baseball mitts; and, in one wrenching scene, writing down secrets, shuffling the slips of paper, and then each reading a secret from a slip of paper.
What starts as surreal and lightly funny becomes first comprehensible and then serious and then heartbreaking. Nothing happens—it’s just a bunch of community-center classes—and yet huge things happen: The characters bare their psyches, break down, rebuild themselves.
The five skilled actors give tightly controlled but accessible performances, allowing you to see them as they realize they’re exposing themselves. Tracee Chimo as the 16-year-old Lauren is extraordinary, channeling the smart, awkward teenager’s discomfort and resentment with tiny bits of body language and facial movement, occasionally loosening up and allowing the sullen shield to fall. (The others are Dierde O’Connell as Marty, the instructor; Peter Friedman, as her husband, James; Reed Birney as Schultz, recently divorced and installed to the local condo complex; and Heidi Schreck as Theresa, an actress in her 30s who has moved to Vermont after leaving a bad relationship in New York.)
The direction, by Sam Gold, is nimble: The actors move gracefully through the sometimes-sprawling exercises; the tension builds expertly and then finally releases. There’s no action here, but there’s a huge emotional punch.