There are Broadway shows that make you want to act, dance and join the cast onstage, that make you understand the joy of a musical, and then there’s “Memphis,” an unnecessary drag of a show that strips you of all hope in the existence of a plotline in a musical. Walnut Street Theatre featured the local production of the Broadway hit musical from May 12 to July 12. If you missed it, don’t worry, you made an excellent decision. Set in the 1950s, “Memphis” contains an unnecessarily complex story that tries to address too many issues at once, all this time having racial relations in the 1950s as the main theme of the story. The story follows the life of Huey Calhoun (Christopher Sutton) who wants to change the world (and by world, we mean racial relations in America) through his radio show on which he features music produced by African-Americans. Apparently, the story is inspired by true events and is based on DJ Dewey Phillips and the music that became known as rock n’ roll.
Soon enough, Felicia Farrell (Kimber Sprawl), a beautiful African-American woman who sings at her brother’s club, comes along and unsurprisingly, her life trajectory intersects with our very idealistic hero’s. Huey is set to launch her on his radio show in an attempt to woo her (and also improve race relations in America — let’s not forget what a crusader Huey is). Love happens. Drama happens. And two hours and thirty minutes of my life are lost.
To simplify an overly complex story in a few sentences — Huey becomes a successful radio host, gets a TV show and wants to marry Felicia. Felicia feels unsafe in Memphis and wants to have a career in New York. Huey, who makes his adoration for Felicia clear, proves his love to her by kissing her onscreen during his show which leads to the end to his career. Meanwhile, Felicia (shocked and saying “How could you?” all this time) gets a reason to leave Huey and go on to greener pastures (or skyscrapers) in New York.
If I recall correctly, there are some twenty songs that are sung in between. Sure, the choreography is great and the dance numbers are performed well, but the cheesy lyrics (“Love will stand when all else falls”) and the climax make you want to run for the door (as many people surrounding me did during the interval). Ironically, love doesn’t even stand where all else falls — our very empowered heroine shuns Huey for a record deal in New York and, wait for it, gets engaged to someone else. But hey, there’s a silver lining — her brother lets Huey know that he doesn’t like her new fiance all that much. Phew. That makes everything better. The show ends with a morose image of Huey in a dark, little radio station with only one listener. Felicia comes by in an expensive fur coat and lets him know about her awesome new life in New York and, as a consolation, invites him to her show. That makes everything better. And everyone (at least Felicia and the background dancers) lives happily ever after. The end.
Don’t get me wrong, I was not rooting for a happy ending, but “Memphis” could have played out in less than an hour where it took more than two. And where were we at the end? There was no mention of race relations getting any better. The hero (who was portrayed to be the nicest guy ever) gets flushed down the toilet by Felicia. Felicia comes back to rub salt in his wounds in the end. I guess the story did have a lesson — nice guys finish last.
If there is ever a rerun, I highly recommend that you avoid “Memphis” and spend your time doing something more productive like lying on your couch eating popcorn and steering clear of bad musicals.