I love this show! Another show that Memphis director Christopher Ashley directed, All Shook Up, featured the early Elvis Presley song “That’s All Right.” That song is deceptively simple, but Ashley’s staging of it mined all of its implications, most vividly the racial tensions that lay under the success of Elvis, “the white man who sang like a black man.”
In Memphis everything that was implicit in that riveting moment becomes electrifyingly, grippingly explicit. In July 1954, a Memphis DJ named Dewey Phillips was the first DJ to broadcast “That’s All Right” the young Elvis Presley’s first commercially released record. Memphis fictionalizes Phillips into the character of Huey Calhoun, who defies the racism of Memphis to express his love of rhythm and blues — and not coincidentally his love for beautiful, black rhythm and blues singer Felicia.
Everybody here is working at the very top of their game. Ashley, best know for his gifts at staging comedy, proves he can be even more compelling and engaging (and entertaining) when dealing with dead serious themes like racism and the fear of success. David Bryan’s music, while it is more ‘60s rock & soul than ‘50s r&b, is miles more sophisticated than his work on The Toxic Avenger or anything he did with Bon Jovi.
Joe DiPietro’s book is inspirational, heart wrenching and devastatingly smart — sometimes all in the same moment. Chad Kimball kicks ass as Huey, and Montego Glover positively glows as Felicia. If I were to pick one performance out of the stellar supporting cast, it would be Derrick Baskin as Gator, arguably the show’s wounded but joyous soul.
Of course it’s not perfect: Ken Travis’s sound design frequently obscures the vocals, rendering a fair portion of the lyrics unintelligible. What lyrics I can make out are of a piece with DiPietro’s wonderful book, so I really do miss hearing them. Nonetheless, if somebody were to ask me what the Broadway musical at its very best is capable of accomplishing, I would give Memphis as a prime example.
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