One of the things you have to know about Memphis: the Musical is that the hardest and hardest-working gig on the DC theatre scene has to be an actor/server at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. They hustle for a whole night, starting as waiters for the buffet-style restaurant, taking drink and dessert orders all before they prep for performing in an often intense musical where they are expected to sing, dance, and act. Oh, yeah, they bring the audience coffee, water, and dessert (if you ask) to you during intermission. They work, run, and commit to everything that’s put in front of them, 100%. Unfortunately, when these champion hustlers are sent in the wrong direction, their inspiring and absolute commitment sends them far off the strongest track that they could take for the Broadway-style musicals that they execute.
Every Toby’s show has the same scenic layout, dictated by the space: a large square surrounded by tables on progressively raised levels where diners/theatergoers sit for their meal and theater experience. When you first walk into the playing area (doors open about two hours before curtain time), the space is covered with movable buffet tables with a variety of salad, savory concoctions and even a meat carving table, generally themed on the contents of the show.
For Memphis: the Musical, there is a variety of Southern-style options, from braised cabbage to Memphis-style ribs that were evidently seasoned by the pre-made McCormick’s mix that I received in the press packet. About half an hour before the show starts, the buffet tables are cleared, leaving the large empty square of stage space in the middle of the room. That means that every Toby’s show is done with audience on all four sides of the space, “in the round” in theatrical parlance.
Any theater director will tell you that staging “in the round” is one of the most difficult tasks a director can attempt. Not only do you have to acknowledge the myriad of sight lines from all over the playing space and ensure that no part of the audience continually sees the backs of the performers, but, simply put, not every show can be effectively staged “in the round.” Memphis: the Musical, is one of those shows, designed to be performed in a proscenium, or traditional style theater, where the entire audience is in one group, facing a performance space with a flat downstage edge.
The result for this production is dizzying for actors and audience. These actors must constantly spin around to make sure that they address each part of the audience, which means that they rarely get a chance to gain solid footing to act with their entire body or maintain strong moments when they need to stay strong. This constant movement is hard on the audience, too, since they never get a powerful and relatively static stage picture to amaze them or the opportunity to concentrate their attention on a particular part of the stage while setup for the next scene is going on elsewhere. The audience has to see it all, and it is easy to get distracted when a sound booth is being set up between you and the action.
But these spatial limitations are not insurmountable. Memphis: the Musical has a fairly simple story, set in the 1950’s and focusing on Huey Calhoun, a White boy in love with Black music, who is determined despite his lack of education and opportunity to see that Black music, embodied by his singing muse Felicia Farrell, is heard and loved by the White world.
While that storyline is somewhat problematic in that it strips Black people of agency in making change in the world, it does address issues of poverty, integration, and love across racial lines in the 1950’s. But this script lies so firmly on the shallow end of the intellectual and emotional pool that if a production doesn’t fully explore it and get it exactly right, it falls short. So, while bad Southern dialects, acting choices (especially for Huey’s character) that simplify rather than deepen, and directing that showed a lack of restraint regarding broad hamminess might have been overlooked individually, their combination creates a one-dimensional piece that fails to inspire emotional investment.
Closes November 9, 2014
Toby’s Dinner Theatre
5900 Synmphony Woods Road
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $58
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
But the music of Memphis: the Musical is full of jams from soul, gospel and blues that were the primary driver in the play taking the 2010 Best Musical Tony Award, so if those are good, the musical might be worth watching.
Toby’s version started off decently with “Underground,” showing off the voices of Ashley Lauren Johnson (playing Felicia Farrell) and Sayne-Khayri Lewis (playing Felicia’s brother Delray). While Lewis has nailed the tone, pitch, and polish of the soul soundtrack, Johnson has the pitch and polish, but sometimes misses the tone, often flattening into the brassy and horizontal sound that can be the bane of the pop voice singing soul. When the White Huey Calhoun walks into the all-Black club, he has to sing to convince the patrons that he belongs and that the music they play is the “Music of his Soul.” Greg Twomey (who plays Huey) then sings out an out-of-place pop track which completely contradicts the purpose of the song. I’m not sure if Twomey’s voice is just naturally tuned for pop or if the musical director has adjusted the songs to feel more like pop music, but, either way, it doesn’t work.
This theme is consistent over the entire evening: moments that reach for power and soul, but never quite get there. There are exceptions. Jonathan David Randle has an earth- and heart-shattering song in a gorgeous tenor at the end of the first act that shines like a beacon in the show. Tobias Young (whose character Bobby shows some of the greatest change over the course of the show) has several fantastic moments that show grace and excellent acting skill. I wish that their work was enough to carry the whole show, but there are too many missteps and unfortunate directions to justify a visit.
Memphis . Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro . Music and Lyrics by David Bryan . Directed by Toby Orenstein and Larry Munsey . Starring Greg Twomey as Huey and Ashley Lauren Johnson as Felicia . Choreographer: Christen Svingos . Musical Director . Ross Rawlings . Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre . Reviewed by Alan Katz.
Closes November 9
Alan Katz . DCTheatreScene moments that reach for power and soul, but never quite get there.
John Harding . DCMetroTheaterArts dazzles with performers rather than spectacle
Mark Beachy . MDTheatreGuide this musical is electrifying and a must see!
Jack L.B. Gohn . TheBigPicture fiery, precise dancing, tuneful belting of catchy songs, great period costumes.
Steve Charing . BaltimoreOutLoud should not be missed.
Mary Johnson . BaltimoreSun “Memphis” proves that no smash hit is too big for Toby’s to produce with pizazz.
Amanda Gunther . TheatreBloom it’s the dancing that turns heads.