How could they have made an almost boring album out of such a fun show? The experience of Memphis on Broadway is up-beat, engaging, humorous and extremely well paced under the direction of Christopher Ashley. The experience of “Memphis” on Rhino Records (a label that doesn’t specialize in musical theater scores but has a fair number of them in its catalogue) is repetitive, overly serious and – I hate to say it – boring.
The reason seems to be that, for the recording, they removed each song from its scene. Instead of a cast album of a show, the package sounds like “songs from Memphis.” The score by Bon Jovi’s keyboardist David Bryan is a blend of rock ‘n roll’s antecedents – gospel and what was called “race music” in the south in the mid 1950s. It works well within the context of the show but it isn’t strong enough on its own to maintain interest for just over 50 minutes, even with all the energy the cast throws into it.
On stage, Chad Kimball plays a white southern boy who seems oblivious to racial barriers in his own home town, delivering a performance that is appealing, uniquely ingratiating and charming in an off-kilter way. On the disk, he does a very nice job with his first act intro, “The Music of My Soul” and his second act big number, “Memphis Lives In Me,” but the off-kilter, winning humor of his performance is nowhere to be heard.
Co-star, Montego Glover, who brings considerable magic to the stage as well, delivers her songs here with energy but without the electricity that seemed to be a response to the reaction of the audience in the theater. Also, it isn’t quite as easy to put her songs into their place in the story – even though the package includes a song-by-song synopsis of the plot. Without its theatrical setting, her “Someday” becomes just an imitation of Diana Ross and the Supremes.
The disc certainly could have included enough of the setting, the dialogue, the sense of camaraderie, charm and humor had they chosen to make something other than a collection of songs. The disc only runs 54 minutes and that includes a three minute “bonus track” of composer/lyricist Bryan singing Kimball’s number “The Music Of My Soul.” His rendition isn’t enough different from Kimball’s to make it important to have provided the “bonus.”
Many original cast albums make you really want to get to New York to see the show while it is still playing or make you look forward with great anticipation to the arrival of a touring production if the show gets one. In this case, the disc may not be that convincing. But, believe me, if you find you like the kind of music you hear on the disc, you will love the show.