Feel-good Tony winner ‘Memphis’ takes a spin through D.C.
By Nelson Pressley
Friday, June 15, 2012
The Broadway musical “Memphis” may be strutting into the Kennedy Center’s Opera House with the 2010 best musical Tony Award in its pocket, but it doesn’t do much with the ancient terrain of whites getting hip to black music as rock-and-roll is born. It’s a big ole comedy that opens with a 1950s country-fried DJ droning about the bleached ditty he just played, Whitey White and the White-Tones’ ‘Whiter Than You.”
Subtle? Like, well, a Broadway musical.
Half a beat later, we’re in a blacks-only Beale Street juke joint, and the stage is filled with dancers grinding their hips and flinging their limbs to the exuberant new blues-gospel hybrid. The “Memphis” score, by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, pounds out big-hearted sounds all night as it charts a white DJ’s romance with “race music” and a young black singer.
It hurts the show that the actual love story feels half-baked, and it’s not because of race. Felicia, the singer, is elegant and smart. Huey, the DJ, is a doofus hillbilly who can’t spell “TV.” (He says so in Joe DiPietro’s script.) You can see why he’s nuts about her, but the show doesn’t allow her to find a lot in him.
But they are united by music, of course, and in shows such as “Memphis,” music is The Truth. It unlocks stiff white shoppers when Huey spins forbidden discs in a department store. It gets phones ringing off the hook when Huey puts the fresh sounds on the airwaves. This is the usual feel-good crusade, and on some level, it works; Wednesday night’s audience cheered when the story reached Huey’s inevitable triumph in the local broadcast ratings.
Credit some of the success to director Christopher Ashley’s efficient production -- “Memphis” never rests. David Gallo’s blue-hued scenery glides from nightclub to radio station to TV studio, where we watch goofy Huey hosting a dance show populated by blacks. (“Hairspray,” musically wittier and much more fun, often comes to mind.)
Brightly dressed dancers fill the stage with what often looks like souped-up cheerleading -- spins, kicks, leaps and back flips. It’s lively, but the dirty dancing of the opening number has more verve than anything else in the choreography by Sergio Trujillo, who created guy group moves for the more satisfying pop chronicle “Jersey Boys.”
The big cast sings with righteous strength, and Felicia Boswell (playing Felicia Farrell) is authoritative while knocking out gospel, blues and early Motown. As Huey, Bryan Fenkart’s voice twangs like a snapped banjo string; the character -- crazily dressed in plaids and stripes and resorting to shtick like the catchphrase “Hockadoo!” -- is written as a clown. Fenkart does well to find endearing undercurrents.
You can see why “Memphis” is a hit, still chugging on Broadway (in a production instantly viewable on Netflix) and enjoying a national tour. It’s friendly as a sitcom, accessible as radio. And, of course, a lot of historical truth lurks inside the show’s broad strokes.
The cartoonishness is hard to shake, though, even when the story turns serious with a street beating and a racist corporate stance aimed at tearing Huey and Felicia apart. When Julie Johnson, as Huey’s mother, visits a black church, she comes out singing like Janis Joplin and Mahalia Jackson at once; it’s an over-the-top comic number, and Johnson’s great at it, but the lampoon factor is pretty high. The jokey, peppy approach may help explain why the sturdy horns and solid rhythm of Bryan’s numbers do their work smoothly but never really get under your skin.
PREVIEW: Finding the heart of rock-and-roll
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, June 8, 2012
Long before Washington was set to host the musical “Memphis” for a temporary run, the Broadway show entertained some distinguished D.C. company: Michelle Obama and her daughters.
“That was as thrilling as the Tony Awards,” says playwright Joe DiPietro of the first lady’s March 2010 visit. “It was a huge boost for our show at a time when we were just building an audience, so it’s nice to be in her current home town.”
The 1950s-set drama, which follows a white radio DJ who shines a light on black music -- and finds a star-crossed love connection with an aspiring songstress in the process -- comes to the Kennedy Center on Tuesday with more than the White House seal of approval. The show boasts four Tony Awards, including best musical and best score, which DiPietro shared with collaborator and Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan.
Having worked in theater for years, DiPietro has seen his share of hits and misses. And although the musical’s secret Tony-winning ingredient was and remains a puzzler, DiPietro recognized the play’s potential early on.
“There was definitely something about that show, and we knew almost from the first time the show was up anywhere: Audiences loved it,” he says.
One early fan was Felicia Boswell, who stars as leading lady and love interest Felicia Farrell after joining the Broadway cast in January 2011. She caught the show in New York while on break from “Dreamgirls.” You might say it was love at first sight.
“I remember seeing the show and being so blown away, and just having that feeling, that tingly feeling of, ‘What is this? Why am I feeling this way?’ ” she says. “I felt an instant connection.”
It’s hard for Boswell to put a finger on what exactly caused such a rousing response, but as a relative of Rosa Parks, she certainly connected with the human-rights angle.
“It’s people fighting to their death, literally, to just be with who they want to be with,” she says. “It’s a necessary story to tell of how it was and how far we’ve come, but also how much further we have to go.”
DiPietro cites the newness of the story and score for sparking the excitement surrounding the show’s opening among Broadway’s sea of remounts and adaptations. Although real-life Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips served as inspiration for the fictionalized plot, the original music is the product of DiPietro’s first collaboration with Bryan.
“I know a ton of great theater composers, and even though they know the rock idiom, they tend not to be rockers,” DiPietro says. “They tend to write theater rock, which is great, but since ‘Memphis’ was about the birth of rock-and-roll, I was really looking for a rocker.”
The pairing turned out to be fruitful, both in terms of awards and new work, including the off-Broadway musical comedy “The Toxic Avenger.” The two New Jersey natives are working on another project that follows 1960s songwriters in New York’s Brill Building, a hot spot for music deals and recordings. Although that new play and “Memphis” both mix history and contemporary music, DiPietro isn’t trying to follow some Tony formula: He’s just writing what he wants to write, he says.
DiPietro doesn’t really feel changed by the award. The people around him might be a different story, however.
“I can say that the morning after I won, I wasn’t a better writer, but everyone thought I was,” he says with a laugh. “That summer after the Tony, I literally walked into a rehearsal, and I would cut actors’ lines, and they would thank me for it, which, seriously, doesn’t happen.”