A poor but plucky white kid in the segregated 1950s South struggles to integrate the hometown music scene. Kid’s white mom disapproves. Black father figure of loud-sangin’ friend disapproves too. But all too predictably, before intermish there’s “race music” on the radio and everybody’s ponying to the beat.
Sounds like Hairspray, right? No, it’s Memphis, a lesser show on similar themes now playing at Theatre Three. The formula-bound Best Musical Tony winner by Joe DiPietro (book/lyrics) and David Bryan (music/lyrics) teases the raunchy feel-good vibe of Hairspray but blows it in an overlong second act and a sanitized, cliché-crammed storyline.
T3’s intimate in-the-round space is always an awkward home for big musicals. Director Bruce R. Coleman’s production (running almost three hours) looks and sounds ragged.
It suffers from haphazard staging, recycled costumes, odd props (is that vintage microphone actually a cheese grater?), a few saggy performances, and major problems with sound. Voices and most lyrics are swallowed into dead acoustics. Instead of shaking rafters with driving rhythms, the eight-piece band is muffled behind scenery in a corner above bi-level stages.
The cast struggles to keep energy high and their voices from fraying. Kyle Igneczi, singing just out of his range, plays Memphis’ Tracy Turnblad character, Huey Calhoun, a ninth-grade dropout with a passion for the music and soulful voices of Beale Street’s black nightclubs. Huey dreams of getting Memphis’ stodgy radio stations to drop the needle on the rock and R&B just starting to catch on with white teenagers. (Huey is loosely based on ’50s Memphis DJ “Daddy-O” Dewey Phillips.)
Talking his way into a job, Huey soon is the top-rated DJ in town. He makes enough dough to buy his racist mom a house, and, like magic, she changes her tune about black people and starts singing with the gospel choir. (At T3, Mama’s played by Kristal Seid, a lookalike for real-life person-in-the-news Kim Davis.)
As a radio and then local TV star hosting an afterschool dance show (just like Hairspray), Huey promotes the singing career of his African-American girlfriend, Felicia (lovely Ebony Marshall-Oliver), who soon lands a record contract and is off to NYC with or without Huey.
And there’s the biggest flaw in Memphis. Great musicals let their heroes win. Huey begins and ends as a loser. Sweet but dumb is great for the sidekick, not the lead. Imagine Hairspray with Tracy Turnblad ending up an unwed mother waitressing in a Baltimore truck stop. Who needs a feel-bad finale?
Memphis continues at Theatre Three through May 22.