The Tony Award for Best Musical has unfortunately become somewhat of a dubious honor over the past couple of decades. The proliferation of classic revivals and dearth of fresh ideas have sparked a severe decline in the number of original Broadway musical productions, in turn often forcing the American Theatre Wing to bestow its highest honor upon shows that really don't merit such lofty recognition. During weak seasons, the Tony committee has struggled to compile a list of worthy nominees (one year the pickings were so slim there was even talk of canceling the award), thus inflating the reputation of medicore shows and crowning what many feel are undeserving winners. Such was the case with the 2010 victor, 'Memphis,' a pleasant enough musical about the dawn of rock-'n'-roll, but one that lacks much flash and fails to leave any lasting impact. Inspired by the work of trailblazing disc jockey Dewey Phillips, 'Memphis' chronicles the burgeoning appeal of black music in the white world, and along the way touches upon the blatant racism that stalled its progress and affected the lives and careers of those brave enough to fight the establishment.
It's the early 1950s, and Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball) uses chutzpah and some sales savvy to land a tryout at a mainstream Memphis radio station, where he pushes the envelope by playing hard-driving black tunes in place of the usual white-bread pop. The instant positive feedback from listeners allows him to keep his job, but the quirky white DJ continues to make waves in the racially divided Southern city, not only by boosting the career of Felicia Farrell (Montego Glover), a young black singer with potent pipes, but also by entering into a taboo relationship with her. Their forbidden love gets them into trouble both personally and professionally, and threatens the bright future each has worked so hard to achieve.
At first, 'Memphis' is eerily reminiscent of other musicals, most notably 'Dreamgirls,' which also tracks the evolution of black music on white airwaves and the crashing of often impenetrable racial barriers, yet does so with far more panache and punch. 'Memphis' can't compete either narratively or musically, but starts to take shape about halfway through its first act, as we begin to warm to Huey's annoying antics and root for his romance with the elegant Felicia. While a powerful dramatic twist ends Act I, the show takes its foot off the gas in its anemic second act, limping to the finish line with a predictable and syrupy denouement.
More drama surely would buoy the often static 'Memphis,' and a better score just might make it soar. The songs by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and Joe DiPietro are certainly snappy, but not a single one is memorable. All it takes is one knockout number for a musical to make its mark, but 'Memphis' lacks that dazzling iconic showpiece that would instantly transform it into a Broadway blockbuster. I didn't expect to hum any tunes after it was over, but I at least hoped I would want to revisit some of the musical segments...and I didn't.
The actors, however, give 110% and their passion for the material enhances their portrayals. And, boy, can they belt! Glover's vocals especially impress, rivaling any soul diva from the Motown era forward, and Kimball lets loose with some powerful singing that belies his diminutive stature. The supporting players also shine, adding welcome nuances and exclamation points to the on-stage action. And thanks to the immediacy of film, we're better able to absorb the palpable emotion that emanates from the cast.
In the end, though, there's just not enough originality - in the story, in the staging, in the score - to lift 'Memphis' into that rarefied realm of musical theater. It's entertaining and possesses some substance, but I can't imagine 'Memphis' ever ending up on anyone's short list of favorite musicals. It may be the best Broadway can do at this particular moment, but for this theater junkie, it's not stellar enough to stand the test of time.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Memphis' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The 25GB, single-layer disc features a video codec of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. There are no subtitles, which is a shame, because some of the lyrics are difficult to understand. When the disc is inserted in the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Broadway musicals often provide a dazzling visual experience when seen live on stage, and I'm happy to report the sparkling 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Shout Factory recreates that eye-popping experience at home. Razor sharp, with vivid colors and marvelous depth, this superior HD effort redefines the hackneyed term "front row seat." Accents, from the heavily patterned costumes to the textures of dresses and jackets, are crisply rendered, and loud hues such as magenta and fire engine red are beautifully saturated. Rich, inky, black levels add solid weight and enhance contrast, and fleshtones are spot-on, with skin blemishes and beads of sweat strikingly evident even from a distance. Because of the complicated logistics of live performance photography, close-ups are sparingly employed, but sport plenty of fine detail.
Shot on high-def video, 'Memphis' is clean as a whistle, with no grain or any specks or marks dotting the print. Noise is absent, too, even in the darkest areas of the frame, and no other digital enhancements or anomalies muck up this smooth, vibrant, and altogether immersive viewing experience.
Although Broadway sound systems have come a long way since the days when mike-less actors had to project their lines to the last row of the balcony, hearing every word in one of the Great White Way's cavernous theaters can still be a dicey prospect even in our current technological age. Enter the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track for 'Memphis,' which offers an actively mixed, well-balanced soundscape with music so pure and clean, it's almost like the band has set up shop in our living room. Now, if the actors would just enunciate their dialogue and lyrics, we'd be in business. Unfortunately, some of the lazy Southern drawls (most notably Huey's odd dialect) and frenetic tunes make comprehending the 'Memphis' book and score somewhat challenging, but that's not the fault of this lively, full-bodied track.
Dynamic range is excellent, with soaring highs and hefty lows, and only a hint of distortion now and then. Surround activity is quite pronounced, with bits of scoring bleeding into rears, as well as audience activity, such as applause and laughter. Stereo separation up front is distinct, too, widening the sound field and lending the show a more expansive, cinematic feel. Though not all the words can be understood, the power of the vocals provokes a visceral response, as crystalline, beautifully modulated tones pour forth from the talented cast, engendering respect for their musical gifts and appreciation for the high quality audio that showcases them.
A few extras -- all in high-def -- connect us more intimately with the production of 'Memphis.'
Despite its status as a Tony Award winner, 'Memphis' may not represent the best of Broadway, but it's still an enjoyable musical that should sate the appetite of theater aficionados hungry for filmed stage shows. It's always a treat to bring Broadway into the home environment, and with top-notch video and audio, 'Memphis' provides the proverbial front row seat. The story and score leave a bit to be desired, and supplements are a tad thin, but 'Memphis' remains a crowd-pleasing good time that's certainly worth a look for musicals fans and those who either can't make the trip to the Great White Way or don't want to shell out a week's salary for a few tickets.