The new musical Memphis (Shubert Theatre) supplies 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.
Set in the 1950s, Memphis deals with the nexus of touchy but frequently explored issues that cluster around the topic of race in popular music. It hashes these issues, as it hashes the history of the era’s burgeoning civil rights movement, into yet another showbiz story of love versus ambition that amounts to an interracial variant on A Star Is Born, with nods to Hairspray and Dreamgirls. Its tale focuses on a feckless, fast-talking white youngster (Chad Kimball) whose passion for “race music” leads him to build and then wreck his career as a popular DJ and TV dance-show host, while he simultaneously loves, makes a star of, and duly loses a beautiful young black vocalist (Montego Glover).
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. Gifted with beauty, charm, and an appealing dignity of demeanor, acting with a genuinely sweet straightforwardness, she hefts a gigantic powerhouse of a voice, employing it for subtle musicality of effect instead of the usual ear-blasting. If FEMA had done for New Orleans what she does for Memphis, the Lower Ninth would be a happier place today.
And Glover is only the beginning of Memphis‘s rescue brigade. When she needs a breather, you get J. Bernard Calloway, as her protective and chronically suspicious older brother; Cass Morgan as her white lover’s devout but sharp-eyed mother; an irrepressible bundle of boisterousness named James Monroe Iglehart as another vocal hopeful; and half a dozen skilled character actors in lesser roles. Even Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, largely conventional but bright-spirited and effective, finds room in one bedlamite department-store sequence for some spectacular acrobatics by a young dancer named Cary Tedder.
Kimball should probably be included on the list of rescuers, too: His eerie, seedy, half-demented rendering of the hero is a fascinating piece of character creation. Unluckily for him, Joe DiPietro’s script makes the hero do such preposterous things that you can’t tell whether he’s a complete numbskull or a lunatic trying hard to get himself and everyone he loves murdered. To accept all of Memphis, you have to believe that a man growing up there poor and white in the 1940s could be not only oblivious to racial barriers but also totally heedless of the dangers involved in breaching them. People who think of Memphis as the city where Martin Luther King was shot might view the matter differently from DiPietro and Bryan. None of which keeps Memphis, the musical, from being an enjoyable experience: You simply have to move your sense of reality to some other quadrant of your brain to relish Ashley’s fast-paced production and the rich, carefully crafted performances it offers.
What Ashley and his cast do to bring the best out of Memphis is exactly what director Robert Longbottom and his cast fail to do, even with the advantage of far superior material, in Bye Bye Birdie, another in the sorry list of the Roundabout’s successful attempts to turn formerly delightful old musicals into embarrassing contemporary disasters. The company achieves this distressing goal with such consistency, no matter who is directing the show, that the blame has to be laid on the management’s whole system of production planning. This is a matter of public concern, since, with the advent of the ecologically sound but unwelcoming new auditorium behind the restored façade of the old Henry Miller’s Theatre, the Roundabout—a nonprofit institution that charges Broadway prices and pays its actors on a regional-theater (LORT) contract—now controls the programming at three Broadway houses.
What’s hard is knowing how to cure the problem. The Roundabout’s management may be artistically shortsighted, taste-free, and tone-deaf, but one can’t legally compel theater administrators to take courses in remedial aesthetics. Nor would it be totally reasonable to peg their earnings to the critical consensus, with a 5 percent reduction in executive salaries for every show that a majority of qualified reviewers judges an utter failure.
And the problem has another aspect. With an institution so geared to fallibility, the crushing blow can come from any direction: In theory, casting Bill Irwin in a musical comedy would seem a good idea; in Birdie, it turns out to be just like putting a ship owned by J. Bruce Ismay next to a very large iceberg. Playing an ordinary 1950s suburban dad, Irwin first creates a preposterously stylized, irrelevant caricature (it suggests Molière’s idea of a bank president), and then infests it with a succession of would-be funny voices as if possessed by the dybbuk of Señor Wences. Aside from Jayne Houdyshell, who performs a character not innately suited to her with comic skill and sympathy, everyone and everything else in Bye Bye Birdie is merely bland or insufficient; Irwin, probably the most gifted artist involved, is the production’s deathblow. Go figure.
My gloom over Birdie and my moderate joy over Memphis leave me little space for the Keen Company’s production of five rarely performed little plays by Thornton Wilder, Such Things Only Happen in Books (Clurman Theatre). But the plays, as small in substance as in shape, and the production, never more than modestly pleasant in quality, fit tidily in this cubbyhole. No harm in them, but nothing as gigantic in scope as Wilder’s great plays, either.