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.
(Photos: Broadway Worldwide)