Mediocrity and the Tony Award should never be in the same sentence; however, with the rise of less unique shows, more and more mediocre theater performances are winning Tonys. It’s sad, but it’s the truth, and unfortunately, it was proven again with the latest National Tour cast of “Memphis” at the Segerstrom Center of the Arts.
Set in 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, the show centers on clumsy Caucasian wannabe DJ Huey Calhoun and African American nightclub singer Felicia, the two of whom, to the misfortune of their clashing skin color in a segregated city, fall madly in love with each other.
Although Calhoun helps her rise to stardom, as well as nabs his own variety show hour in Memphis, he is still a much-hated figure in the city by those who believe in keeping the different races from interacting.
At the end of the show, he loses not only his much loved role as a TV host, but also his girl, because he chooses to support racial equality over his employment.
The music of “Memphis” has little to no ingenuity, mainly due to the strong influence of the era’s music. Thus, songs have extremely similar rock ‘n’ roll style beats, with high-energy lyrics.
I initially found the show to be overall, average. The script was not well written, nor was the music that memorable. Yet, it was the performances of an extremely talented cast that made me change my mind about the show.
Above all, the vocals were very strong, with a noticeable amount of vocal training from almost all performers. By far, the two best leads were Felicia (Felicia Boswell) and Mama (Julie Johnson), both of whom brought the show to a standstill with their impressive vocal talent during their power ballads. Notably, one of the best songs in show was sung by Mama, entitled “Change Don’t Come Easy,” in which she combines her showtune-style vibrato with a soulful melody to create a truly powerful song.
The choreography was also a strong point, filled with era-appropriate dancing, as well as unique, organic movement that expressed not only the angst, but also the passion people felt for rock ‘n’ roll music during the 1950s. The dancers did a fantastic job performing each dance segment, and truly were a pleasure to watch.
Yet, the main problem I had with the show was nothing that any cast, regardless of how much talent they possessed, could fix: the script.
There was little to no depth in each of the characters, and so when several traumatic scenes were occurring, I felt almost no empathy to either actor since they hadn’t been established in their own right to the audience as someone to love or hate. It was unfortunate that my main feelings for the protagonists were apathetic, yet I knew that this problem lay in the underdevelopment of the characters by the script writer than in the acting. The actors did what they could with the script.
As I said before, the show was overall decent, and if I had seen it with no prior knowledge, I would have left the theatre slightly unsatisfied, but generally pleased with the musical. Yet this show, which has been described as “A Smash!” by Newsday, won the Tony Award for Best Original Musical in 2010.
The Tony Award isn’t a joke, people. It’s the Academy Awards of Broadway, and should be treated as such. However, with such a steep decline of truly amazing original shows, mediocre shows such as “Memphis” seep through the cracks, and are suddenly hailed as Tony winners. It’s truly a sad fact that the prestige of the Tony awards is significantly less than what it used to be.
I recommend “Memphis” as an entertaining show, but not as a high-caliber, Tony Award-winning musical. It’s good, but not great.