‘Memphis’ finishes out big musical week in Manhattan

By Gary Clift

Area fans of musical theater recently found themselves rushing off to see plays three nights within a week or so.

There was the K-State School of Performing Arts production of the musical The Wedding Singer that we saw on the stage of McCain Auditorium.

Then, in Manhattan High’s Rezac, there was South Pacific.

And finally, last Friday we went back to McCain, this time to see a decent touring company do a 2010 musical called Memphis.

Our intake was so rich for a few days that some of us will have to go on a musical diet until we can keep our memories of the three shows separate.

The productions—what the live casts and orchestras did with the material—were all laudable and energetic. The music was clearly strongest in South Pacific. The story was clearly weakest in Memphis.

The show is about a white fellow, Huey, who lives in Memphis in an imaginary period that was part fifties and part sixties. This illiterate department store employee falls in love with the black pop music he hears while standing outside a Beale Street nightclub. Then he falls in love with the star of the club’s show, an African-American woman named Felicia.

One day at work he takes over the store’s record department and, by playing “race” records for potential customers to hear, sells a remarkable number of them. This leads him to approach radio stations, offering himself as a disc jockey and the records as the material for his show. A try-out proves his instincts correct and he is able to advance his girlfriend’s career.

He also makes himself into a local celebrity, sometimes the target of violent anti-integrationists, but usually the hero of teen music fans who adopt his cryptic slogan: “Hockadoo.” Felicia is afraid to be recognized as his lover. She offers the relative freedom allowed interracial couples as one reason for the two of them to move to New York.

But she gets serious about the move when she is approached by a Big Recording Company. Huey lets himself get talked into dressing more conservatively when a representative of Big Broadcasting will be in town to watch his t.v. show. Then our hero balks when the New Yorker suggests the show will only work nationally if all the dancers are White.

Felicia sells out and leaves. We are told that Huey’s competitors adopt the music he has been sponsoring. Four years later he is back to being a disc jockey, and he is not a popular one. Then Felicia returns, a national star with a new fiancee, and makes Huey a patronizing offer, which the script mishandles in a surprising way.

In other words, here’s the basic concept of Hairspray, but much simplified, with fewer of John Water’s sort of screwy characters, and with a much simpler and less satisfactory story. So how’s the music?

Its problem is that it isn’t at all Memphis. It is Broadway, big, blaring, and—for the sake of historical reference—vaguely Chuck Berry like for short spells. Perhaps I am wrong in thinking that the Memphis sound is not really Sun Records or B.B. King but rather the later, lighter soul sound that contrasts with what we call Motown and Philly. Think “Hip Hugger,” or even “Soul Deep.”

The sound for the musical is more like Phil Spector with vocal warbling that seems to me to belong further east in Tennessee—like in Nashville. But this is all hair-splitting if the songs are memorable. Unfortunately, the songs in the musical Memphis, written by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, are not anything out of the ordinary.

Now the cast worked as hard as they could to put the songs and the story over. Jasmin Richardson, who played Felicia, seemed to be a crowd favorite and seemed to have the most complete voice, though it was hard to tell at the full-out volume the production asked her to use. RaMond Thomas (Gator) had a lot of voice. Jerial T. Young (Bobby) had a winning stage personality.

The production may not have made up for all the deficiencies of the show. But I was happy to hear this newish musical for the first time. And the local crowd was happy to have it as a finisher for a big musical week.

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