The premise, one easily summed up as the old switcheroo, couldn't be simpler. Three black performers sing a bunch of pop, rock, and R&B tunes which were originally made famous by white people. That is pretty much the last word on A Brief History of White Music, a revue that has played Off Broadway to rave reviews and toured extensively since the mid-'90s.
When the joint production, a collaboration between Playhouse on the Square and the Memphis Black Repertory Theater, opens at TheatreWorks this weekend audiences will experience anthems to such stridently white institutions as wood-paneled station wagons and rampant juvenile delinquency. The all-singing, all-dancing show, unencumbered by clumsy prose and almost entirely free of confounding narrative, lampoons half a century of radio goo-goo with a program that reads like a late-night K-Tel commercial. Numbers such as "Where the Boys Are," "Who Put the Bomp?," "Downtown," and the all-time number-one white classic "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" bookend one another without any logical connection. Some songs are rendered faithfully, with a sly comic twist, while others have been infused with soul and shot through with the spirit of the Lord. Elvis is well represented as are the Beatles, though the great Robert Goulet, arguably the whitest singer of all time, is, unfortunately, missing from the catalogue.
Though the show seems sugary sweet, it's hard to miss the unspoken commentary that bubbles beneath the surface. The history of white crooners finding fame and fortune covering songs by uncredited and often unpaid black artists at a time when "race" music wasn't considered radio-friendly is extensively chronicled. But in the end, at least according to director Tony Horne, A Brief History of White Music is more about fun than it is about politics. And lest there be any doubt, coming to terms with musical absurdities like Sonny and Cher can only do us all a world of good.
"We start out pretending to do opera. And then we act like we are doing Opryland," says Horne of his production. "So you get a good idea of what the jokes are going to be like in the first song. Then we take songs by these white artists and do them like you might have heard them. 'Blackening' them up, if you will. The show is dependent on the cast's ability to improvise, to do R&B riffs and gospel riffs within the confines of these songs that everybody knows so well. So there are a lot of things that will change nightly based on whatever spirit hits the singers. Not every musical-theater performer can do things like that, the scatting and the gospel. These guys can do all of that."
Horne, who assisted Harry Bryce in the founding of the Memphis Black Repertory Theater and who has provided Memphis audiences with such theatrical treats as the roof-raising Blues in the Night and the controversial Stonewall Jackson's House, has spent the last year serving as an interim professor of theater at St. Louis University. The move allowed the director to stretch his performance muscles and try on a few new hats. "I really got the chance to break out of my mold there," he says, explaining that while the musical revues he is known for are fun he longs for meatier material. "I acted in an original script about the life of Scott Joplin and I got to direct a show by Brecht. It was a piece called Mr. Puntilla and His Man Maddie about a wealthy landowner, who, when he's drunk, loves all his workers who are poor. When he's sober, he's an asshole and mean to everybody who isn't rich. I kept thinking, this is great, I'm getting to direct one of the masters."
A Brief History of White Music may not be a work by one of the masters, but Horne is quick to point out one particularly attractive quality.
"It's short," he says. "It's only 95 minutes long. And it's G-rated. That makes it the perfect summer-night entertainment. It's the kind of thing that would be absolutely perfect in a cabaret setting or down on Beale Street." Then realizing one asset to performing on Beale that TheatreWorks does not afford, he adds, "It's the kind of thing where I really wish I could set up a bar and serve drinks."
A Brief History of White Music at TheatreWorks through July 29th.