Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Memphis (the musical) returns to Seattle

If you've never heard of Memphis the musical, you're not alone. I hadn't either, but savvy musical-theater types probably know that it won the Tony award for Best Musical in 2010, and had 1,166 Broadway shows, ending its run this August. In terms of story, it reminds me of both Dreamgirls and Hairspray, tracing the injection of 1950s soul music into mainstream cognizance. Memphis also has a mixed-race romance between Felicia, a black singer, and Huey, a white exuberant hillbilly DJ who brings her talent to the Memphis radio airwaves.

Memphis was at the 5th Avenue Theater in 2009, before it hit Broadway, and returns tweaked and presumably improved. The vocal talent in the show blew me away--the quality by far is the best I've seen in Seattle to date. I was enamored of deep-voiced Horace Rogers, who plays Felicia's protective brother, Delray, and of Julie Johnson, who plays Huey's cantankerous racist mother.

For me, the writing and music didn't shine as much as the performers. The songs didn't stick with me, and the story felt derivative, even though it's based loosely on a real Memphis DJ. I mean, if you're making a musical it totally makes sense to base it on music history, but because Dreamgirls and Hairspray are so entrenched in my musical consciousness, it can't help but pale in comparison. The romance part of the story, which should have brought me to tears, amazingly didn't. I tried to figure out why, and it might just come down to the fact that I really didn't like Huey's hick-like accent. It didn't sound like the people I know from Tennessee; I don't know if it was authentic to his uneducated, mid-century lower-class character or not. Either way, I felt cheated out of what should have been some cathartic heart-wrenching drama.

That said, I highly, highly recommend this show! It's well-staged and the singing and dancing are exceptional. Catch it in Seattle through October 7. A nationwide tour is underway, so you can see it in other cities as well; check the schedule here.

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