Stage Review: 'Memphis' is rocking, footapping entertainment
by Christopher Blank
Sunday night's official opening of "Memphis" at the Orpheum theater, where the Tony-winning Broadway musical has been newly staged for the launch of its national tour, finally brings locals face-to-face with the cartoon-colored confabulation of history built upon the sexy premise that rock and roll music was, at the onset of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, a bridge between the races.
The silhouette of the old Memphis & Arkansas Bridge that hovers over the stage is both a fitting symbol and also one of the few real-life landmarks referenced in a show that is, to borrow an expression used by the lead character, a "fantastical" representation of the city and its past.
No doubt, the production opens to the most critical audience of its tour -- a theater full of strong, and well-informed opinions on the subject of Memphis.
Judging by the enthusiasm of Sunday's audience, most will agree that "Memphis" is genuinely entertaining. David Bryan's Tony-winning score, played by an onstage band, has catchy, hummable hooks and a pop sensibility that draws liberally from gospel, R&B and rock genres. The music practically compels listeners to clap along, shout "Amen!," and even join along in the singing. If the anthemic tune "Memphis Lives in Me" doesn't make you feel like you're on the front row of a Lee Greenwood concert while he's singing "I'm proud to be an American" as the fireworks go off, then someone should probably check your pulse.
It's also easy to find consensus on the show's moral lesson: racism does indeed suck. And with racist attitudes of the 1950s serving as the primary antagonist in "Memphis," the characters are so sympathetic simply because their struggle is axiomatic to us in more enlightened times.
The show opens in an "underground" all-black nightclub on Beale Street. "Ain't no white folks here, 'cause they're too damned scared," says one patron just before a young white man named Huey Calhoun comes slinking down the stairs. Grabbing the microphone, he makes a case for why he should be allowed to stay. Black music is the "music of my soul," he avows.
He's attracted to more than just the music, however. The club owner's sister, Felicia, captures his heart through her singing voice.
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