Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Two Opposing Sides - The Boys in the Photograph & Memphis - Musical Reviews

The Boys in the Photograph - Royal Alexandra Theatre - Toronto, ON - ** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Book, Lyrics and Direction by Ben Elton, Choreographed by Tracey Flye
Runs until Nov. 1st 2009

Memphis - Shubert Theatre- Broadway - New York, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by David Bryan, Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro, Directed by Christopher Ashley, Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Opened Oct. 19th 2009

Two new cliched musicals that feel like retreads of things we've seen before. Both by composers who were big in the 80's and early 90's. Both are love stories set upon a backdrop of real life historical tensions and conflicts of warring groups of people. Yet while each are thin on true darkness despite the dramatic subject matter, one still ends up becoming a complete bore, while the other turns out surprisingly entertaining.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's "new" musical The Boys in the Photograph finally made it to Toronto after its initial Winnipeg trial, but it is a reworked version of The Beautiful Game which ran in London for a year or so. The musical follows a local football (soccer) team and what happens to some of its players during the years when the IRA began forming and warring against Britain and London. While some players become radical terrorists, others try to stay true to the beautiful game and make it as a football star, but alas, old relationships collide and things get bloody. Throw in a central love story, friendships, betrayals, and some fancy dancing footwork made to look like soccer playing, and the musical should have had some strong themes to run with.

Sadly, despite a game Canadian cast let by Erika Peck (We Will Rock You) and Tony LePage, the musical gets bogged down by a lack of direction and even worse, a lack of an actual book. The big showy musical elements appear in the first act, but nothing happens in the plot. When finally things actually start happening in the 2nd act, when tensions rise, friendships are broken and actual conflict happens, the musical is so blandly staged and sung that it's too late to save the show.

I mostly blame Director and Writer Ben Elton here for a totally imbalanced book that takes way too long to set things up in the first act, then rushing through the interesting drama in the second act and never allowing the issues and conflict to truly deepen and ripen for any true emotional impact. By the time things get tense, badly photoshopped photos are projected on the set almost to comical effect, not exactly the outcome they were probably going for in a musical about IRA radicals and those that stood up against them.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's music was surprisingly subdued for ALW and seemed less bombastic than his normal stuff. Things still got sort of monotonous when the main melodic themed seemed like the only thing to run repeatedly throughout the show, but the song "The Beautiful Game" was actually a pleasant sequence, despite the stand still direction.

Ben Elton doesn't help the numerous tepid solo or duo ballad's by staging them with little to no action, with almost every song sung by a character standing perfectly still. Only Tracey Flye's somewhat clever choreography created any interest on the stage, despite not jarring with anything Elton decided to put on stage.

Alas, while I admire the issues Elton and Webber were trying to portray on stage, and as hard as the cast tried to make it interesting (with so much great talent feeling wasted on stage), the end result is a warmed over musical with shades of West Side Story meets Riverdance that requires a far more skillful team to deal with such serious issues. (I would have loved to see what Jason Robert Brown or Michael LaChiusa could do with this).

On the other hand, Bon Jovi's David Bryan and his musical collaborator Joe DiPietro, who last created the very ridiculously silly The Toxic Avenger Musical (my review here), seemed like the last people that could deal with an interracial love story set in Memphis in the 1950's. And to be honest, they aren't, as the musical never really gets deep enough for any real issues. On the other hand, the glossy musical built as a crowd pleaser is so entertaining and winning, that despite the cliches and retread, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the new musical.

And yes, it is actually a brand new musical, with brand new songs and not cobbled together from existing songs! But with David Bryan's catchy music that sounds Top-40 familiar (if slightly forgettable), and a story that feels familiar (from many movies or musicals or cliches), there's a comfort level to the show that allows the general public to sit back and enjoy the terrific singing and terrific dancing with enough of a hint of racial tension and serious drama unfolding behind the central love story (though sometimes it does resemble South Side Story meets Hairspray meets Dreamgirls) to feel weighty enough.

The show isn't going to win any awards or further the musical theatre canon but it's a solidly entertaining show with a lot of credit to its director Christopher Ashley (Xanadu) and choreographer Sergio Trujillo (Guys and Dolls, Jersey Boys) for putting on a old-style crowd pleaser with tons of dancing incorporated back into the musical. The audience was eating it up, and I had to say, I was right along with them.

Memphis follows a local white DJ wannabe who hears the sound of a beautiful black singer, and woos her both in love and with the prospect of a singing career, each using each other to further their career while they fall in love despite their differing races in a city and time still not accustomed to blacks and whites co-existing together.

Chad Kimball plays Huey Calhoun, the white DJ, and Montego Glover (above) plays Felicia Farrell, the phenomenal crooner and while I'm not sure Kimball and Farrell's chemistry together fully works (though that partly may be on purpose for the story), individually, each easily commands the stage. Glover has a remarkable voice and one that is believable in the central star-to-be-born story and her energy and elegance is clearly palpable.

Chad Kimball, sporting an odd mannered Southern accent (that could be annoying but didn't really bother me actually), charms his way through the show with his boyish youthfulness and spunk, and brings out a mature soulfulness in his singing.

A large cast nicely surrounds the two great leads, with a great James Monroe Iglehart (one of the best things from last summer's tepid The Wiz) and a slightly caricature Cass Morgan (below with Baskin , Iglehard and Calloway).

Though if Derrick Baskin, J. Bernard Calloway or Michael McGrath all seem a little two-dimensional, that's due to the lightweight script that glosses over the darker sides of the ugly race wars in 50's Memphis. This in the end is a happy joyous musical so there's no time to dwell on the beatings and the truly ugly. If recent musicals (like Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, Grey' Gardens) have furthered the future of musical theatre, then Memphis is an unabashedly feelgood throwback to the glossy Hollywood shows that makes you feel good. The conflicts may resolve a bit too easily and things seem to almost work out in the end, but with hugely talented and likable leads and some pleasing tunes, Memphis glides by on that southern charm.

While the show is not as strong as Jersey Boys or even Mamma Mia, Memphis seems to be gunning for the same suburban 40+ demographics and they're gonna love it. The Theatre queens are gonna hate it, but I think this may last longer than some are predicting. In the end, I gotta say, I liked it. Way more than I anticipated. With some editing (especially in act 2) and reworking of the book, the show could definitely succeed based on the charm currently shown.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


DuchessKitty said...

I saw Memphis when it had its pre-Broadway run in Seattle last year and I didn't really like it that much, although I enjoyed some of the individual performers. I didn't think it had a chance on Broadway so I'm pleasantly surprised by your review and other postitive ones that I've read.
From your description it sounds like they changed the story around a little which is a good thing, as the plot dragged a bit in the preview.
I might consider going to it when I'm in NYC next month.

Vance said...

Yah, Memphis wasn't perfect during the mid previews I saw on Broadway but with some tightening up, I thought it had potential to be a 4 star musical (out of 5). Plus Chad Kimball and Montego are really great and extremely winning.

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