Tuesday, November 22, 2011

'Memphis' Pleases the Crowd, If Not Quite the Soul -- Theatre Review

Theatre Review

a new musical
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 4

Taking its initial bow in Chicago as part of its first national tour, Memphis is a bit of an anomaly these days, as it is a new musical not based on brand-name source material or utilizing pre-existing songs.

Having won the 2010 Tony for Best Musical and still enjoying a strong Broadway run, it has clearly garnered a fair amount of popular acclaim. And as evidenced by the standing ovation from the full house at the Cadillac Palace, many found it quite satisfying.

I found it to be a decent musical though far short of fantastic; well-intentioned but somewhat hackneyed and artistically shallow. There were some nice highlights and I'm glad I saw it; it does what it does well and may seem excellent to those with less discerning tastes, but there are literally hundreds of shows I've liked better.

I haven't re-read it all, but I think I wrote pretty much the same about a July 2010 concert by Bon Jovi, whose longtime keyboardist, David Bryan, wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics for Memphis.

Which isn't to imply that the show has obvious sonic similarities with the New Jersey band. Bryan does a good job applying his talents to the musical stage and has composed songs that work within the context of the race-relations story of Memphis (not so unlike that of Hairspray, a much better musical).

Though Joe DiPietro, who wrote the musical's book and co-wrote the lyrics, also has a track of record of popular, but often critically-suspect plays and musicals, this is more than the work of two hacks. Memphis is a credible musical that might have deserved its Tony, but wouldn't have against stronger competition. Its original story isn't all that original, and its original music seemed only occasionally inspired (I had listened to the cast recording, but it too didn't grab me). 

If you're a musical theater buff, Memphis is well worth your time, but won't be the best show you'll ever see. And if you only rarely go to musicals, it may well be a show you like even better.

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