Tuesday, October 20, 2009



Book by Joe DiPietro, music by David Bryan, lyrics by DiPietro and Bryan. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Shubert Theatre.

Sneaking onto Broadway minus marquee names or a huge media build-up, after years in development in the regions, this lavish new musical about early rock 'n' roll (improbably, from the team who brought us the still-running Off-Broadway B-movical The Toxic Avenger) seems to have the distinct advantage of surprise. Many critics didn't expect to like it, but like it, even love it, many do. Though even some of its admirers admit that the show's backstage machinations and interracial love story flirt with cliche, they hail its deft storytelling and direction, its exuberant score and choreography, and the lead performances of Chad Kimball as a lovably obnoxious white DJ (many compare his manner to George W. Bush) and Montego Glover as the black belter he loves. There are enough strong detractors to dampen the overall grade, though: They mostly agree about the vibrant performances and brisk direction but find the music or the book, or both, to be synthetic retreads of Dreamgirls and Hairspray. Our favorite typo: USA Today's Elysa Gardner identifying Kimball's character, Huey Calhoun, as Huey Newton.

Bloomberg News A+
(John Simon) The story is fictional and slightly derivative, yet also witty and moving, human and humane...This is more than a simple feel-good story; there are plentiful setbacks for the young lovers and only a semi-happy ending, if that. But I can guarantee you a rambunctious good time highlighted by rousing music and singing, spectacular dancing, and even some shedding of tender tears. The musical numbers are irresistible. To be sure, choreographer Sergio Trujillo had at his disposal some phenomenal dancers, but, at least as important, he has come up with original and incandescent dancing that no current musical and very few past ones could match...Chad Kimball’s summoning up of Huey is so perfect that not for a moment do you believe that it is only acting. This is a performance hewn out of live flesh and blood. He is enchantingly partnered by the Felicia of Montego Glover, a thrilling singer and commanding actress. However difficult this Felicia is, you root for her every inch of her questionable way.

Newsday A
(Linda Winer) Arguably the best black musical written by white guys since "Dreamgirls"...Imagine if "Jersey Boys" had new music to go with its cultural history, or if "Hairspray" were not a happy cartoon about race relations. "Memphis" has a passionate, exuberantly believable book by Joe DiPietro...The remarkably rich and raucous character-driven songs, by Bon Jovi cofounder David Bryan, lovingly capture the insinuating, earthy authenticity of rhythm and blues, gospel and early rock and roll without sounding derivative. The moody and inventive production has been put together with down-and-dirty elegance by director Christopher Ashley, choreographer Sergio Trujillo, set designer David Gallo and costume designer Paul Tazewell, who let the musical and dramatic and pop-up scenic discoveries peel off one another at a pace breathless and disciplined, original and authentic. When a singer lets loose - and, eventually, they all do - the vocal pyrotechnics come from deep within the storytelling.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) Exhilarating...As ambitious as it is entertaining, informative in a quasi-historical way as well as emotionally affecting in its parade of thoroughly engaging characters...Book writer Joe DiPietro skillfully intertwines these stories. And with composer David Bryan (they co-wrote the lyrics), the two have managed to create a dandy original score that is as tuneful as it is theatrical, the very essence of what a Broadway musical should be. Bryan, keyboard player for Bon Jovi, has a gift for effortless melody and the orchestrations, which he co-wrote with Daryl Waters, makes the music - check out those horns - sound as if it could have first been heard in the '50s..."Memphis" is a big show with a large cast (more than two dozen actors) and David Gallo's multiple sets ranging from that Beale Street dive to radio and television studios. But Ashley makes it all move with surprising speed.

New York Post A
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) A zippy, exuberant musical--one that relies exclusively on steadfastly "classic" values: catchy songs, heaping spoonfuls of inspirational moments and tear-jerking schmaltz, and committed performers at the top of their game...The show is more about an era than a person, and so it generously spreads the goods among its cast. Iglehart, J. Bernard Calloway (as Felicia's brother, Delray), Derrick Baskin (Gator) and Cass Morgan (Huey's mom) all get notable solos, while Glover is terrific throughout, embodying rhythm and blues as she effortlessly switches from sexy to funny to emotional. And the songs these gifted performers are given aren't too shabby, either. If Bon Jovi's Bryan picked up one thing in his decades of playing arenas, it's how to write hooks and anthemic choruses. He just ladles them out here, all the while paying homage to the variety of sounds coming out of black Memphis clubs at that time. Purists may snicker, but this score works perfectly on Broadway. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo -- easily topping his overrated, Tony-winning work from "Jersey Boys" -- and director Christopher Ashley wrap it all together with smart, brisk efficiency.

The Hollywood Reporter A-
(Frank Scheck) An out-of-left-field-surprise: an original musical, not based on a presold property and devoid of stars, that is joyfully entertaining in musical and theatrical terms. Although its themes are familiar -- "Dreamgirls" and "Hairspray" both come to mind -- and it doesn't fully manage to avoid cliched aspects, the show could well turn out to be a surprise hit...Joe DiPietro...handles these complicated themes in a way that's never heavy-handed, with the story's melodramatic aspects leavened by frequent doses of hilarious one-liners, many of them expertly delivered by Kimball. The show eschews becoming yet another jukebox musical with its terrific original score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, which provides an expert pastiche of '50s-era R&B, rock and gospel. Credit, too, must go to the superbly brisk staging by Christopher Ashley and the exuberant choreography by Sergio Trujillo, which is terrifically handled by the large ensemble.

On Off Broadway A-
(Matt Windman) Under the fast and flashy direction of Christopher Ashley, "Memphis" proves to be a truly entertaining and invigorating musical, benefiting immensely from Sergio Trujillo's athletic choreography, which is like a big bundle of kinetic energy. Rather than use tried and true hits of the early 1950s, Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan has penned a pulsating new score mixing blues, rock and gospel that feels soulful and authentic to the period. Except for a tacked-on upbeat ending, Joe DiPietro's book is dramatically sound and surprisingly unsentimental...Occasionally, "Memphis" feels clichéd and reminiscent of storylines already seen in "Hairspray," "Dreamgirls" and "Jersey Boys." But more often than not, its careful balance of pure fun and character drama proves to be irresistible.

The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Nice to know a new musical can actually surprise you. Though it starts on a familar note and sparks deja vu at other points, "Memphis" eventually finds its own voice and beat, and wins you over with its sheer enthusiasm and exuberant performances...Director Christopher Ashley ("Xanadu") spins the elements into a gleaming, good-looking production. It flows with cinematic finesse and makes the most of Joe DiPietro's slim, sometimes manipulative book. Sergio Trujillo's choreography has verve and imagination...The songs by DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, the team behind "The Toxic Avenger," are an easygoing mix of R&B, soul and period pop. A few tunes are catchy enough to stay in your head for days.

NY1 B+
(Roma Torre) Has its flaws but its strengths outweigh them. It’s a book musical with tremendous performances, an infectious score, excellent direction, wonderful choreography, an engaging story and a pretty good book...The book by Joe DiPietro is missing a strong climax and the end feels tacked on. That aside, "Memphis" is so loaded with talent, it almost seems pointless to criticize. The music by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan with an assist from DiPietro on lyrics is full of the kind of soul Huey sings about. Whether it's R&B, gospel or rock and roll, the songs recall the hits of the era. And Sergio Trujillo adds a powerful visual stimulus with some dazzling choreography. The cast is sensational..."Memphis," quite simply, rocks.

Lighting & Sound America B+
(David Barbour) You don't often see such a richly imagined character in a musical and Kimball inhabits him from head to toe. The actor hasn't had the happiest theatre career to date, and it's a thrill to see him tear into material that is worthy of his talents. He is more than matched by Montego Glover as Felicia, the black singer who becomes Huey's protégée...This double dose of star power is especially felicitous because, much of the time, Memphis is stranded between two poles. Is it a searing, propulsive melodrama, or a small-scale laughter-and-tears romance lifted by a procession of roof-raisers? Hard to say, because, too often, it seems headed in both directions at once...Even when the libretto tries to get tough, it remains firmly predictable...Still, under Christopher Ashley's fast-paced direction, everyone delivers on the show's many crowd-pleasing aspects. This includes Sergio Trujillo's inventive and athletic choreography...It's not a great show, but it's a professional one, and it sends the audience home, feeling thoroughly entertained.

Village Voice B
(Michael Feingold) An object lesson in something every practitioner of musical theater should learn—how to make good entertainment out of less than great material. As writing, Memphis is an uninspired trek over fairly familiar ground; as music, David Bryan's score is listenable and non-painful, but lacking any particular distinction. Even its design tends to look smoothly proficient rather than fresh, evoking prior Broadway musicals instead of the Southern riverbank city of its title...But the musical, as a form, is about people in performance. Where the writing falls short, performers can come to the rescue, the vibrancy of their presence transcending the tired stuff they're obliged to put over. In Memphis, director Christopher Ashley has assembled a first-class rescue team, with Glover a magnificent rescuer-in-chief...If FEMA had done for New Orleans what she does for Memphis, the Lower Ninth would be a happier place today.

Backstage B
(David Sheward) Though its brain may be a bit simple, "Memphis" has its heart and soul in the right place. The new musical features a rock-solid score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, dynamic singing, and athletic dancing. On the debit side, Joe DiPietro's book reduces a traumatic period in American cultural and musical history to a bland "Behind the Music" special, and director Christopher Ashley encourages his cast to limn broadly, blunting the impact of several potentially heart-wrenching moments...Unfortunately, with the exception of Kimball's Huey, the characters come across as two-dimensional clichés—clichés who can sing but clichés nonetheless...Bryan successfully captures the flavor of the R&B and gospel tunes of the period without imitating them.

Talkin' Broadway B
(Matthew Murray) None of the songs is particularly memorable on its own, but cumulatively construct a lush black-meets-white soundscape...Everything has been smoothly directed by Christopher Ashley, and hotly choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, demonstrating some of his best work yet in the slides, leaps, and jives that show how black’s and white’s dances were merging just as their music was...Glover is a knockout, transforming Felicia from a shy wallflower to a fire breather behind the microphone. She’s only allowed one dip into the deepest pain of oppression (the first act’s “Colored Woman”), but it’s a legitimately searing song and a thrilling performance that hopefully proves this role won’t be the last Glover originates on Broadway...[Kimball] hides behind a three-foot-thick hillbilly accent that’s probably supposed to sound uneducated, but just sounds sloppy...But if, like Kimball, the show falters along the way, it ultimately succeeds even through its clichés in its lively presentation, celebration, and critique of the personal and professional obstacles on the road to a fully integrated America.

Variety B-
(David Rooney) A talented cast, stirring vocals, athletic dance numbers and vigorous direction supply crowd-pleasing elements in the lively new musical, "Memphis," as evidenced by the waves of appreciation coming off the audience. But there's also a nagging predictability to this story...The performances in Christopher Ashley's production are all writ large, but they are not without soul or sincerity. That makes you wish the actors had better material than writer and co-lyricist Joe DiPietro's superficial book, which connects the dots in such a perfunctory way -- especially in the weak second act -- that the outcome of pretty much every scene is evident the minute it gets going. The score by Bon Jovi founding member and keyboardist David Bryan is generic but well-crafted, with toe-tapping beats and driving horn lines, as well as a keen ear for rock, pop, blues and gospel idioms, even if they do play fast and loose with the era. Trouble is, the songs are more imitative than inspired...The actors frequently lend conviction that's absent in the writing...And while it grows repetitive, Sergio Trujillo's muscular choreography and the high-energy dance ensemble provide a big assist in maintaining some momentum even when the storytelling flags.

Entertainment Weekly C+
(Clark Collis) A mixed bag...On the one hand, the stage design is inventive and fairly lavish, the gospel numbers penned by Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan are more than acceptable, and Montego Glover shines as an African American club singer named Felicia Farrell whose socially taboo relationship with Calhoun powers the plot. On the other hand, much of that plot is simply ridiculous, the rock 'n' roll numbers are ploddingly inauthentic, and Calhoun's naivete about the problems likely to be caused by his love for Farrell leads one to believe that he has beamed in from some more racially tolerant time and place (possibly the set of Heathers, given the Christian Slater-ish vibe of Chad Kimball's performance).

New Yorker C+
(John Lahr) Overproduced, overamplified, and, at nearly three hours, overlong...A sort of musical behemoth that bullies you with its energy until you give in and like it. O.K., I give. The loosey-goosey Chad Kimball, who plays Huey, the d.j., turns in an exceptional performance, full of charm and mischief, as the lost soul who finds his mission in delivering black music to a white audience. Kimball manages to convey the spirit of rebellion in the sound. Felicia, the object of his desire, is played by the gamine Montego Glover, a petite woman with a big voice, who exudes an aura of fetching sweetness. I’ll give a shout-out also to the hardworking and high-stepping ensemble...You leave “Memphis” knowing that you’ve had an exciting experience, but—unable to recall a song, a melody, or a line of dialogue—you can’t quite remember what it was.

Theatermania C+
(Brian Scott Lipton) Practically dares you to love it...Whether one is willing to fully embrace the show or simply give it a little hug will depend on one's willingness to overlook the project's tonal inconsistencies and reliance on cliche...Joe DiPietro's patchwork book not only too often recalls better musicals, specifically Hairspray and Dreamgirls, but never seems entirely clear what kind of story it wants to tell...Faring better than the book is Memphis' score...which is consistently melodic and often catchy...But ultimately there's far too much music here...Ashley's smooth if occasionally frenetic direction almost allows you to overlook the show's rougher spots, and he's been well-served in his mission by David Gallo's excellent set and projection design, Paul Tazewell's colorful costumes, Howell Binkley's effective lighting, Sergio Trujillo's energetic choreography -- and, above all, the top-notch and extremely hard-working cast.

The New York Times C
(Charles Isherwood) This slick but formulaic entertainment, written by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, barely generates enough heat to warp a vinyl record, despite the vigorous efforts of a talented, hard-charging cast. While the all-important music, by Mr. Bryan of Bon Jovi, competently simulates a wide range of period rock, gospel and rhythm and blues, the crucial ingredient — authentic soul — is missing in action. Dare I suggest that “Memphis” is the Michael Bolton of Broadway musicals? I do...Despite all these obvious drawbacks, the show holds the attention through the efforts of its appealing cast...All the performers do their best to infuse Mr. Bryan and Mr. DiPietro’s score with the earthy vibrance it fundamentally lacks.

Time Out NY C
(Adam Feldman) Cannot be faulted for its intentions: Its heart and its soul music are in the right place. The show’s assets begin with Chad Kimball’s dynamic, courageously outré leading performance as Huey, a Tennessee radio DJ in the 1950s, who champions “race records” and embarks on a risky romance with a black singer (the lovely Montego Glover, an impressive vocalist). The music has laudable drive, which Sergio Trujillo’s choreography brings to vibrant life. Yet...the competent Memphis doesn’t quite connect...DiPietro and Bryan previously collaborated on the enjoyable horror spoof The Toxic Avenger, but musical drama requires greater depth than they and director Christopher Ashley (Xanadu) have mustered...The show spends its first act arguing for integration and its second in gradual disintegration.

Bergen Record C
(Robert Feldberg) Although show and story are united through music, a curious divide happens as the evening moves along...As good as the songs are, Bryan – he and DiPietro co-wrote the lyrics – is working in a limited musical range, and a feeling of sameness creeps in. That sense is heightened by director Christopher Ashley, who – with Trujillo – has staged almost all the musical numbers at a full gallop. In contrast, the romance story, which moves increasingly to center stage, proceeds at a relative crawl. That tale can also be frustratingly clichéd. All the whites except Huey and several teenagers are portrayed as reflexive bigots, while the blacks, though depicted more favorably, are their own kind of stereotypes...It takes courage to write an abrasive lead character like Huey, who's a pushy egomaniac. The downside is that he's obnoxious, and it's hard to accept his allegedly deep feelings for Felicia. It doesn't help at all that the slightly built Kimball, who gives a consummate performance, looks, distractingly, like a young George Bush, and even drawls and laughs like him...Glover, a dynamic singer, makes Felicia a considerably more sympathetic and persuasive figure.

New York D+
(Scott Brown) May be the first musical about pop music to be based on other musicals about pop music, with strong whiffs of Bye Bye Birdie, Dreamgirls, and Hairspray...Memphis is a mock-up of a phony, but it does intend to convey a serious message: Rock and roll, it seems, was not invented by white people!...With his 78-r.p.m. delivery and quicksilver tenor, [Kimball is] a perfectly contoured stone skipped briskly across the show’s sluggish surface. He sells a passable eleven o’clock number, “Memphis Lives in Me,” as an aching, ringing heartland anthem. Ultimately, neither he, nor his brass-piped, Diana Ross–ish love interest Felicia (Montego Glover), nor the poppin’ ensemble, can save Memphis from melodic poverty, Bono-grade race-bathos, and lyrics like “We gotta change our intolerant ways.” But they do give an empty K-Tel collage of a show an honest soul. And, in Kimball, Memphis has given us a brand-new Broadway rock star.

USA Today D
(Elysa Gardner) Veers from cloying earnestness to obvious satire. Part of the problem is that the leads seem incompatible for reasons having nothing to do with skin color. It's tough to see how Montego Glover's elegant Felicia could be attracted to Chad Kimball's buffoonish Huey, who suggests a cross between an aging stand-up comic and a parody of George W. Bush in his frat-boy heyday. Glover gives Felicia an endearing sweetness and sings powerfully. But like her castmates, she's saddled with music and lyrics (the latter co-written by Bryan and DiPietro) that at best play like retreads of old R&B hits. Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi, also invests some songs with power-ballad melodrama. Wrapping one such number, Colored Woman, Glover holds a note so long that you half expect Simon Cowell to leap out of the audience, screaming, "Enough!" The wasted talent also includes the robust-voiced James Monroe Iglehart, cast as Huey's black buddy, and an ensemble of charismatic young dancers who lend added exuberance to Sergio Trujillo's kinetic choreography. Let's hope they all have equal opportunity to find gigs more deserving of their gifts.

Wall Street Journal F+
(Terry Teachout) I've seen dumber musicals than "Memphis," but not many and not by much. This noisy piece of claptrap, which has been rattling around the regional circuit for the past six years, turns the real-life story of Dewey Phillips, a Memphis disc jockey who fell in love with rhythm and blues in the '50s, into a ludicrous fantasy about a white DJ named Huey (Chad Kimball) who puts a black singer named Felicia (Montego Glover) on the radio, thereby driving the local racists crazy...What makes the cartoonish premise of "Memphis" sillier still is that the songs, by Joe DiPietro ("All Shook Up") and Bon Jovi's David Bryan, are slicked-up, blue-eyed pseudosoul knick-knacks that have nothing in common with the down-and-dirty 45s that Phillips spun on WHBQ's "Red, Hot and Blue" a half-century ago. Amazingly enough—or maybe not—this howlingly funny irony seems not to have occurred to anyone connected with "Memphis."

Bloomberg News A+ 14; Newsday A 13; Associated Press A 13; New York Post A 13; The Hollywood Reporter A- 12; OOB A- 12; The Daily News B+ 11; NY1 B+ 11; LS&A B+ 11; VV B 10; Backstage B 10; Talkin' Broadway B 10; Variety B- 9; Entertainment Weekly C+ 8; NYer C+ 8; Theatermania C+ 8; The New York Times C 7; Time Out NY C 7; Bergen Record C 7; New York D+ 5; USA Today D 4; WSJ F+ 2; TOTAL: 205/21=9.76 (B)

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