J. Bernard Calloway revels in ’Memphis’ (this time in HD)

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Wednesday April 27, 2011

When "Memphis" comes to movie theaters later this week and this weekend for four HD performances it marks another chapter in this musical's evolving story, one that its principals -- Chad Kimball, Montego Glover and J. Bernard Calloway have been in from the start. That was eight years ago when the musical was first performed at North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, MA. From there the show went west, first to TheatreWorks in Mountain View, California during their 2003-2004 season, and then when it reappeared in pretty much the version being seen on Broadway at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse in 2008 and Seattle 5th Avenue Theatre in 2009 before it found its way to Broadway's Shubert Theatre later that year, where it has been selling out since.

What is most unusual about this event (presented by NCM Fathom and Broadway Worldwide) is that this video presentation will be streamed to some 530 movie theaters nationwide giving audiences throughout the country the opportunity to chance to see this Tony-winning musical as it continues its Broadway run. It marks the first time a Tony-winning musical will be seen in movie theaters while it is running on Broadway.

Set in Memphis during the mid-1950s, "Memphis" tells the story of DJ Huey Calhoun (Kimball), who broke the racial divide by playing African-American artists on the radio, much to the chagrin of the Establishment. The story is a fictionalized account of the career of disc jockey Dewey Phillips, one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s.

Complicating matters is Calhoun's relationship with Felicia (Glover), an African-American singer who sings at a club run by her brother Delray (Calloway). Calhoun wants to promote her career, but also falls for her; which raises the stakes considerably in the segregated city.

Something fresh

What attracted Calloway (who made his Broadway debut with the show) to "Memphis" was its originality. "It was something fresh," he said before a recent performance. "Something that I had never heard in the musical theater before. I was first moved by the music - it makes you want to bop your head. Then I was touched by its book. It’s a story that hasn’t been told before in a musical."

In the show Calloway plays something of a buffer between Huey and Felicia, warning each of them of the inherent dangers of their relationship. "Huey’s got a dream and vision, but Delray is more practical. The thing about him is that he owned a nightclub - one of the few black businessmen in Memphis at the time. And if mixing happened in his club, it was considered wrong. He was just realistic, but he also could see Felicia’s dream and help jumpstart her career by giving her a gig in his club. Then through Huey (and his radio show) she gets heard by a larger audience. That’s the way many artists got known back then - through the radio."

While the show deals with serious themes, it is far from a civic lesson with music, which was another aspect of the show that Calloway liked. "It’s a story that no one ever talks about. And is a fun way to do it with great music and a great script."

The critics also agreed. Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press wrote, "The exhilarating new musical shaking the Shubert Theatre is the very essence of what a Broadway musical should be. "Memphis" is sensuous, soulful, tuneful and theatrical, expertly cast and superbly sung. Take a deep breath as the curtain rises, because the exuberance doesn’t stop. The propulsive choreography and sinuous, sexy dancing perfectly match the music. The dancers are among the hottest in town." And the usually hard-to-please John Simon raved in Bloomberg News: "I guarantee you a rambunctious good time highlighted by rousing music and singing, spectacular dancing and a witty, moving story. "Memphis" arrives on Broadway triumphant!"

When award season came that following Spring "Memphis" proved triumphant, winning three major New York theater awards for Best Musical: the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle citation and the Tony Award (where it also won Tonys for Joe DiPietro for his book and DiPietro and David Bryan for their score).

HD is awesome

For Calloway the video performance (which he had seen earlier in the week) takes the show to an entirely new level. "To begin with, the HD quality is awesome, but I think what people are going to respond to is the intimacy that the camera brings." While audiences must watch a show in a theater from a fixed point-of-view, this video broadcast (filmed over the course of five days using up to nine cameras) brings the audience right into the action. "What they did in the editing room was take those performances and distill them down to one complete show. It’s flawlessly done.

"A lot of times moments you miss things in a show," he continued. "You can’t catch every thing and you miss moments in the story telling. But in a movie theater on a huge screen with surround sound, you’re engaged in every moment. It’s like seeing an epic movie that you love to see over and over again, like The Wizard of Oz. On screen it’s right in your face."

Being part of the "Memphis" experience - especially during its Broadway run - has been a high point for Calloway’s career. "This was my Broadway debut," he explained. "And is the gift that keeps giving. It’s just exciting every night. This is an audience show - every night we get a standing ovation. Every night. It makes me giddy - I’m like a kid in a candy store and I’m reveling in it. But it was also a long time coming and took plenty of patience and diligence on everyone’s part."

That journey saw Calloway’s role evolve in the show’s different iterations, most notably his first act song "She’s My Sister," which replaced an earlier song. (In it Delray warns Calhoun of the dangers of an interracial relationship.) "Joe (DiPietro) and David (Bryan) wanted to give me a song that made the emotions more direct and ’She’s My Sister’ made it more personal. It seemed more realistic and raised the stakes - it gave the scene and the show more richness. It expressed what was truly going on and what could happen."

Though far too young to have experienced the events portrayed in the musical, Calloway recalls having heard about them through family members and friends growing up. "I’m from the South, but didn’t live through what’s presented in the show. But I have uncles and aunts and other family members who did. I’ve heard many stories of the struggles. From white friends too about the struggle for equality."

The culmination of the show’s long journey to Broadway came last May when the show won four Tony Awards, where it won the coveted Best Musical medallion. "Man, we were the first ones they showed when they announced the award. And do you know what it was like? I played football in college and it was like getting a touchdown or hitting the ball out of the park. That’s what it felt like. The adrenaline was crazy. Working on something like this for so long, you never think you’ll make it until you are actually there. And we had no names in our show - the producers could have hired anyone out there to fill the seats; but they stuck with us - Chad, Montego and myself. They only saw us in the roles, which is quite an honor. And now I’m elated the world is going to get to see our show."

"Memphis" will be seen Thursday, April 28; Saturday, April 30; and Tuesday, May 3 at 7:30 p.m., with a special matinee on Sunday, May 1 at 12:30 p.m. (all times are local). For more information and to find a theater near you, visit the NCM Fathom website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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