I decided to wait to publish this review of Memphis until after Broadway San Jose closed their recent Bay Area premiere of Memphis, because of two reasons: I want you to see shows at Broadway San Jose (especially when they are Bay Area premieres) and Theatreworks, based out of Mountain View, was one of the regional theatres that cultivated this show from the beginning. Both of these institutions are major players in bringing great theatre to the Bay Area, and I want people to support them, but personally, I just don’t like Memphis. I thought I might have a change of heart since I saw it back in previews in October 2009, but if anything, it completely solidified my feelings of dislike even stronger.
I just don’t understand how Memphis won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical. I do have a theory though. I think that it just ended being the perfect storm for Memphis. Back when I saw it in previews, I wondered if it was going to last through winter, but the show kept keeping on, and in a very weak year for new musicals, Memphis just ended up being the best choice. (It was up against American Idiot, FELA! and Million Dollar Quartet for Best Musical.) Memphis ended up winning the coveted award for Best Musical and ran on Broadway for 1,166 performances and now there is even a feature film in the works. Not bad for a show that doesn’t have any emotional resolve.
And that, basically, is my main issue with the show: the ending.
At the end of the show, radio show host Huey Calhoun (the fantastic Bryan Fenkart) is in complete depression – he lost his girl, Felicia (Felicia Boswell) about four years ago and is on the worst radio station in Memphis. He has barely any listeners, no love life, and the last we had heard, the racial tensions in Memphis were not good (people were rioting when they found out about Huey & Felicia kissed on local TV broadcast). None of these issues are resolved, and if anything, worsens when Felicia announces that she is married to Bill, who very clearly, she doesn’t love. Then, all of the sudden, Felicia is on stage at her Memphis concert premiere singing, “Listen to the beat. Play it. Obey it. Love it with your feet.” Huey suddenly joins and continues, “Listen to your soul…. let it make you whole.” Then the song plays over and over until curtain.
(She really does sing, “Love it with your feet!” Seriously. I can’t make this stuff up.)
When it finished, I wondered, “What the hell just happened?”
This show doesn’t make me want to fight for societal change — the risks and losses are too great. This show doesn’t make me want fight for love — both characters end up alone (it’s clear that Felicia still feels alone even though she is engaged) and emotionally bruised. This show doesn’t even make me want to visit Memphis. Though it has some great music, the city which this musical is named after, is not featured enough to make me actually like the city. If anything, everything about the city of Memphis is negative.
Was Huey Calhoun’s efforts worth anything? Clearly, things have changed in regards to racial tension and segregation, but none of that was addressed in the musical. The very obstacle of the show was clearly about race, but at the end there is no hope towards a racially equal world. It wasn’t even really addressed unless you count White and African Americans dancing together but that wasn’t enough for me. The writers had a the perfect moment to impress upon a very open audience on how standing up for change can influence generations! A Normal Heart, with a few short words in a projection slide at the end of the production, created a huge impact, one that is still with me months after seeing it. Memphis ended and all I felt was annoyed that I invested myself into these characters who made all of the wrong choices and ended up being sad and alone.
All that being said, I sat back, forgot my worries and tried to be entertained. Unfortunately, I was taken out of the moment about every 5-10 minutes. Felicia Boswell, clearly a very strong singer, was barely intelligible. I didn’t understand probably 80% of what she sang (though this probably wasn’t helped by the bad sound design which I address next). Her big number, “Colored Women” during the middle of the first act was a tour-de-force performance that sounded like it was in a different language. She had incredible vocal prowess but without any diction. Her moments on stage with Bryan Fenkhart was definitely the best part of the show — their scene work was fantastic. Bryan brought a depth to Huey that I didn’t see when I saw it on Broadway. (He was the original understudy for Chad Kimball.) His accent was also less annoying than Kimball, which made his character so much more likable. I really enjoyed his character work and overall story arc a lot more.
I know that sound quality/design in the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts is incredibly difficult. Every opening night that I have been to has had some sound issues. I think past shows have had it a little easier since the orchestra used the pit. But with Memphis’ current staging, the band is off stage for the first act, and then on stage for the duration of the second act. This created a huge issue for the performers (at least I’m assuming) because I have never heard a Broadway chorus that was consistently off-key, not together with the band, or that hard to understand. I know these performers are better than that, so I assume it was the space and the fact it was their first time performing in this space. I’m sure it only got better during the length of the run, but it was just one of those performances that was just “off.” (Even Bryan’s chair’s wheel broke during the last scene!) Those things happen, and the cast kept doing their best and I’m sure that 75% of the audience never even noticed anything, but I was a bit surprised with the frequency of it all.
There were some great moments! Huey’s mother, Gladys (the hilarious Julie Johnson) was fantastic, especially in her number “Change Don’t Come Easy”. She brought the house down! Her comic timing was perfect. The choreography, by Sergio Trujillo, was fun to watch and incredibly athletic! It was also a treat to see William Parry (Mr. Simmons) perform on stage. (He was seen on Broadway in four original Stephen Sondheim musicals and many others.)
So unless you convince me otherwise, it’s safe to assume, I’m not a huge fan of Memphis, but that said, I’m a huge fan of the Bay Area supporting the arts — and I think it’s amazing that a show that got its start at Theatreworks’ New Works Festival is creating its own story! And I hope everyone that has been on its journey has loved every moment of it!