Saturday, March 3, 2012

PlayhouseSquare: Memphis The Muscial

In 2010, I was lucky enough to win a PlayhouseSquare-sponsored trip to the Tony Awards as a seat filler. Though that evening was at once both a blur and unforgettable, looking back at that show the most memorable performances were American Idiot (featuring blinding light and the music of Green Day) and Memphis -- for the sheer energy of performance during the show and then the unadulterated joy that seemed to break free in Radio City Music Hall when the Best Musical Win was announced (YouTube video).

Combined with the inclusion of the song Memphis Lives in Me on a Broadway Sampler digital album I picked  up somewhere along the way, I was eagerly awaiting Memphis's arrival in Cleveland. Tonight seemed like a good night to head downtown -- and fortuitous timing with DanceCleveland presenting Ballet Memphis next weekend.

Collecting Rachel from work and heading towards PlayhouseSquare the evening got off on the wrong foot with quite possibly the most inattentive, slow, and generally lackluster service[1] (combined with overpriced and mediocre food) I've experienced in a restaurant from Star at PlayhouseSquare--it reminds me why I don't dine in the district more often. Putting more weight on the wrong foot, I have to say I despise PlayhouseSquare's practice over the past year or so of forcing ushers to march around the house with "No Cameras" signs on poles. It's distracting, seems rather amateurish and a bit demeaning.

Luckily, when the curtain rose and the houselights dimmed that all faded  into the background as we slipped back into the 1950s where Huey (Brian Fenkart) is a white man who seems either willfully or blissfully ignorant of the matter of race as a societal divider. Huey is drawn to "race music"--facing challenges and finding success as a DJ then television host, chasing the love of a talented black singer, Felicia (Felecia Boswell) in a time when such a relationship wouldn't be tolerated. Felicia finds success and a New York recording contract, Huey has the opportunity to follow her to New York and take his television show nationwide but only if he replaces his dancers with whites -- which he refuses to do, and after kissing Felicia on TV fades to obscurity while she finds success. (The Wikipedia entry has a full synopsis)

The music is powerful and as compelling as the story and weaves the elements together; my favorites being Everybody Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night, Memphis Lives in Me, and Steal your Rock and Roll. Every time I looked over at Rachel she was enjoying it -- frequently laughing to a degree usually reserved for one of  my truly awful puns. And I have to say that Mama's (Julie Johnson) performance in Change Don't Come Easy and the scene leading up to that number reminded me of Rachel's mom.

Though minor little technical issues tend to drive me crazy, an have been a factor in attending fewer PlayhouseSquare performances, this performance was pleasantly free of such warts: The audio was clear and competently mixed; lighitng was compelling and directed the audience's attention without being distracting.

Although said to be based to some extent on the life of Memphis DJ Dewey Philips (the first DJ to play an Elvis Presley record on the air), sitting in the Palace Theater, just down the block for the former location of the WJW-AM studios it's impossible not to consider some of the parallels to Cleveland DJ Alan Freed -- credited with popularizing the term "Rock 'n' Roll" and to wonder how the same love story would have unfolded in a "northern" city during the same period.

Memphis, through March 11 at the Palace Theater, PlayhouseSquare.

[1] Of many examples, we're seated: We wait several minutes before our waitress shows up, asks us if we'd like a wine or martini list. I say yes please. She disappears. Several minutes go by before she reappears and asks us what we'd like to drink, we remind her that we still haven't seen the wine list. Several more minutes go by before we see a wine list. More time passes  before she returns to take our drink order. It was nearly a half hour between being seated and  first drinks.

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