New York City Theater
"Bye Bye Birdie"
Henry Miller's Theater
If two R&B, R&R Broadway musicals were trains, the first would be near its destination before going off the rails while the second would have trouble even leaving the station. The new “Memphis” offers a considerably more pleasurable journey than the stillborn revival of “Bye Bye Birdie.”
“Memphis” tells the fact-based story of Huey, a young white man in search of his soul. In a Beale Street nightclub, he finds not only the music that “will actually take me somewhere,” but the woman who helps turn his life around. She’s Felicia, talented, beautiful – and black. Since this is Tennessee in the 1950s, that combination will eventually lead to trouble.
Before feeling the full brunt of bigotry, however, Huey champions the blues so vigorously that even a skeptical radio station manager allows him to start a disc jockey show featuring “race music” and his prejudiced mother eventually becomes his champion. In an idealized world, music is the glue to bring races and generations together, leading to an exciting challenge dance at the end of act one.
Unfortunately, act two doesn’t sustain momentum. The dancing is as inventive, but the show runs out of breath. From a tale that mirrors the rise of both blues and consciousness, Joe DiPietro’s libretto descends into one that deals with clichés about career differences, dating the musical, making it seem shallow and losing the opportunity to enlarge our understanding of the times.
Chad Kimball is a high energy Huey. His character’s self-centeredness allows him to buck family and society, his sincerity allows for single-minded dedication. Kimball clarifies Huey’s complex motivations: ambition, self-promotion, love, acceptance. As passionate but cautious Felicia, Montego Glover sings as if exposing her heart. As Felicia rises, Huey falls, although they unite in a rousing 11 o’clock number, “Memphis Lives in Me,” that is the evening’s highlight.
David Bryan’s music (he co-wrote the lyrics with DiPietro) relies more on beats and rhythms than tunes, but they are colorful. Add Serge Trujillo’s relentless choreography and Christopher Ashley’s bright direction of a talented cast, and you have a piece that is often vigorously entertaining.
As for tuneful music, you can’t get much better than Charles Strouse’s score for “Bye Bye Birdie.” With lyrics by Lee Adams, its songs endure. “Put on a Happy Face,” “One Boy,” “Rosie,” “How Lovely to be a Woman” and the like are hummable and adorable. Nor is Michael Stewart’s book anything but a winnable satire on a male idol and the teeny-boppers who get hysterical at the mere mention of his name.
Inspired by that terrible moment in American history when Elvis Presley was drafted, the 1960 hit supposes a last-gasp publicity stunt involving Birdie’s kissing a nubile teenager from Apple, Ohio, on the Ed Sullivan show. The stunt is engineered by a desperate manager, Albert Peterson, to the consternation of end-of-patience girlfriend Rosie and devouring mom Mae.
On the other side are the chosen teen, Kim, her distressed parents, her wise little brother and her jealous boyfriend, Hugo.. In the middle, of course, is the rebellious, somewhat cynical, talented Birdie, played to the hilt by Nolan Gerard Funk whose “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” is the evening’s best number.
So much talent is wasted here, yet emerging relatively unscathed are Jake Evan Schwencke as little brother Randolph, Jayne Houdyshell as Mae and the underused Dee Hoty as Kim’s mother. But the great Bill Irwin is unwatchable as the spastic father, with struggling John Stamos (Albert) and Gina Gershon (Rosie) looking as if they’d rather be elsewhere. As Kim and Hugo, Allie Trimm and Matt Doyle are appropriately bland.
There’s no “pop” to Robert Longbottom’s pedestrian direction nor his by-the-numbers dances. The show doesn’t even look good. Certainly it doesn’t have the heat of “Memphis.” In fact, as one “Birdie” lyric goes, “nothing left me colder” and all I felt “was several hours.
David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 8, 2009