R&B soundtrack to the Civil Rights struggle at Toby's [Review]
By By Mike Giuliano
Sep 17, 2014 | 6:30 AM
If you visit "Memphis" at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, you'll be going back to a time in the 1950s when racial integration and R&B music were intertwined subjects that made many establishment types uneasy.
Although this 2009 Broadway show takes those issues seriously, its Tony Award for best musical is as much a testament to a score that is an enjoyable pastiche of musical styles from that era. In other words, the issues tap into your conscience and the songs get your feet tapping.
The music and lyrics by David Bryan, who was a founding member of the rock group Bon Jovi, are smoothly professional and sure know how to win over an audience. Although there aren't any truly distinctive tunes, a few are within striking distance.
Bryan's creative partner, Joe DiPietro, who wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics, is generally alert to civil rights history; more specifically, he is sensitive to the social circumstances of a protagonist loosely inspired by real-life DJ Dewey Phillips.
Bryan and DiPietro ensure that "Memphis" pleases an audience, and it's very pleasing in a lively Toby's production co-directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, with musical direction by Ross Scott Rawlings and choreography by Christen Svingos.
If "Memphis" rarely goes from being enjoyable to being exciting, it's because Bryan and DiPietro settle for predictable characterizations and plot twists. The show is so literally, er, black-and-white in its scripting that you may find yourself agreeing with its politics and yet wishing the show weren't so formulaic in its presentation of Memphis in the 1950s.
By contrast, think about the engaging characters and memorable songs that made "Hairspray" such a terrific evocation of similar racial issues in the Baltimore of the early 1960s.
In "Memphis," the protagonist, Huey Calhoun, is a young white man whose musical taste and sense of racial justice are quite advanced for his society. He leaves his low-end jobs and becomes an advocate for so-called "race" records by actually locking himself into the booth at a radio station and playing R&B records that are more boisterous than the station's Perry Como norm.
Huey is an unconventional fellow and becomes a local DJ through suitably unconventional means. This is an inherently funny situation, so it's too bad the exaggeration-prone script tends to treat Huey as if he were a live-action cartoon figure.
Greg Twomey possesses the loose-limbed and downright goofy traits that Huey requires, but in the early scenes he eagerly indulges in overly cartoonish behavior. Fortunately, he eventually settles down and makes Huey seem like a real person.
When Huey goes into a Memphis club that has an all-black audience, you can imagine how very white he appears in that setting. He's immediately attracted to a beautiful young black singer, Felicia Farrell, whose talent is forcefully embodied by Ashley Lauren Johnson. When she sings "Colored Woman" and other numbers, Johnson really elevates the show.
Huey's mere presence in the club makes its owner, Delray Farrell (Sayne-Khayri Lewis), uneasy. Delray is Felicia's big brother, so you're right to anticipate that big trouble lies ahead when Huey starts courting Felicia.
Considering how crucial this romance between a white man and a black woman is to the story, the script does not devote enough time to its evolution. Duets sung by Huey and Felicia do advance their relationship, but sharper dialogue scenes would help.
We're rooting for Huey and Felicia to make it as a couple, of course, and so our own good will admittedly helps push the romantic story forward.
It's more difficult to accept some of the other plot developments. There is a bartender at the black club named Gator (Jonathan Randle), for instance, who stopped speaking after a disturbing racist incident. Is a spoiler alert necessary in stating that he regains his voice at just the right moment?
Similarly, Huey's mother, Gladys Calhoun (Lynne Sigler), shares the racist values of her time and place, but all too conveniently sees the humanitarian light right on cue.
It's easy to make note of such opportune contrivances in the script, but it's just as easy to enjoy the show for what it is. When Huey, Felicia and a fully populated gospel choir burst into song in "Make Me Stronger," the show itself seems stronger.