After the PBS broadcast of “Memphis,” viewers will be in awe — for one of two reasons.
They will either be dancing along to the admittedly infectious music of the finale, or will sit dumbfounded and mutter, “This mediocre show won Tonys for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score and Best Orchestrations?”
“Memphis,” airing on KUED Ch. 7 on Friday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m., has zesty choreography by Sergio Trujillo, and the hard-working cast is talented and energetic. But the musical is a pedestrian effort by first-time Broadway writer David Bryan, keyboardist of the rock band Bon Jovi, and theater veteran Joe DiPietro. Bryan wrote the show’s music and lyrics and DiPietro (off-Broadway’s “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) wrote the book and also is credited as lyricist.
Sure, the music is danceable and mildly entertains, but the generic pop songwriting and cumbersome, clichÉd lyrics pale beside the artistry shown in musicals from recent years by John Bucchino, Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown and Michael John LaChiusa.
Perhaps most telling of all is the “competition” that “Memphis” faced for 2010 Tony honors from only three musicals: “American Idiot,” “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Fela!”
“Million Dollar Quartet” struggled with just under 500 Broadway performances before re-opening at a smaller off-Broadway theater. For its music by Green Day, “American Idiot” became a popular hit with fans of the punk-rock band, but barely mustered 400 performances. And “Fela!” closed after only a one-month run.
Seeing a live recording of a currently-running Broadway show is an opportunity as rare as striking it rich while panning for gold, but “Memphis” glitters like dishwater.
The one definitive reason to watch “Memphis” is the indelible performance of Chad Kimball as Huey Calhoun, whose trademark phrase is “Hockadoo!” As the doofus ’50s DJ who was the first to play “race records” for a white audience, Kimball makes the character his own. He takes on a unique drawl that is so right for his Calhoun, it comes vividly to life on stage. But Calhoun is written so poorly that he’s merely a cardboard cutout of a white boy overly comfortable in the wrong side of town who wants to solve all of the black folks’ problems.
As the black singer Calhoun promotes to stardom, Montego Glover also gives an appealing performance and has a “fantastical” voice. But the script rushes all the plot developments and we never become emotionally involved in the story. Even the central story of an unlikely couple falling in love and then (spoiler alert) breaking up happens so quickly that is barely plausible.
“Memphis” became a good-time favorite with the Broadway bridge-and-tunnel theatergoers, and with the technically perfect PBS telecast viewers can decide for themselves the merits of the original production.
Is “Memphis” “an exuberant musical with catchy songs (and) heaping spoonfuls of inspirational moments,” as reviewed by the New York Post — or will you agree with the New York Times’ proclamation that the show is “slick but formulaic entertainment (that) barely generates enough heat to warp a vinyl record”?
Me? I’d be much happier if PBS were able to re-broadcast the stunning musical it premiered in 2006, “The Light in the Piazza” — which drew a record 2 million viewers.
“Memphis” is rated TV-PG for a few profanities, mildly suggestive dancing, smoking and references to alcohol.