I've seen some extraordinary performances, but until recently, I'd never seen anybody stop a show. Now I've seen it all.
At the Orpheum on Sunday, on the official opening night of its first world tour, Memphis, the Tony-winning musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, came to a standstill while the audience applauded Bryan Fenkart's performance of "Memphis Lives in Me." Fenkart and his co-star Felicia Boswell dropped character, faced the cheering crowd, and waited until things were calm enough to resume. The response was unexpected since Fenkart's Huey Calhoun is essentially an imitation of what Chad Kimball did on Broadway. And Kimball's performance, while good enough for New York theater, wasn't especially soulful by local standards. The song itself is so riddled with Southern clichés about "muddy waters" and streets "paved with soul," it makes Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis" positively authentic by comparison. Yet the crowd would not stop clapping.
Memphis the place is a notoriously tough date, and we can be an especially contrary bunch when it comes to how we're represented by outsiders. So this is probably good news for Memphis the show, which is already booked to play 80 U.S. cities, Japan, and England.
Bryan's pop score is effective, if not very memorable, and DiPietro's story about a white, R&B fan who falls in love with a black singer during segregation plays itself out like the more serious twin of John Waters' Hairspray. The choreography, however, is explosive, and Memphis connects with its audiences emotionally.
Does Memphis exploit Memphis' musical heritage? Sure. Will some locals experience the closing number "Steal Your Rock and Roll" like a hurtful parting shot from two New Jersey crooks who got away with it? Probably. But Memphis is also a crowd-pleasing, blue-collar romp in the spirit of Footloose: The Musical. If it offends your sensibilities, it wasn't written for you in the first place.
At the Orpheum through October 23rd
Avenue Q is Sesame Street for adults who still have a lot of growing up to do. It's occasionally raunchy, always real, and a helluva lot of fun. Director Jordan Nichols and his excellent cast have gone above and beyond in bringing the politically sly puppet/minstrel show to life.
What can you expect to see from Avenue Q other than red-hot puppet-on-puppet action and Gary Coleman? You will see a closeted gay Republican banker puppet realize that things really do get better. You will thrill to the Bad Idea Bears and their delicious Long Island iced tea parties. You will believe that a monster can masturbate.
Avenue Q's songs aren't very exciting musically, but they are damn funny. "The Internet Was Made for Porn" still works even though the joke's gone stale from overuse. "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" taps into hard and hilarious truths. But seeing Gary Coleman turned into a sight gag is weird now that he's dead. That bit makes me wonder about Avenue Q's shelf life, although the musical seems — almost improbably — to have improved with age.
At Circuit Playhouse through
Judas Hands, a play written, directed, and starring Ekundayo Bandele, is a compelling, if not entirely convincing, tragedy about a rural man named Goldie Street, who runs away from trouble hoping that his skilled hands can build a better life in the city. The play's working title, Streets Paved With Black Folk, is also a fairly good plot synopsis for his elegantly written horror story with narrative passages that call to mind a bevy of Southern authors.
Judas Hands boasts a solid ensemble and one extraordinary performance: Kristi Steele as Serra Street, Goldie's long-suffering wife whose sweetly told story of hardships endured rivals Dickens. The script has some credibility problems in the second act and its shocking ending feels unearned.
At the Hattiloo Theatre through