Memphis at the Academy

Memphis (David Bryan, score; Joe DiPietro, book and lyrics) Broadway at the Kimmel, January 17- 22, 2011, Academy of Music,  Review of Jan. 17  opening for WRTI, 90.1 fm.

People looked like they wanted to dance along with the energized cast of Memphis at the Academy of Music Tuesday night.  David Bryan’s invigorating score sounds like it’s tuning into rock ‘n roll history though history’s been fiddled with in this musical. For the touring show, Bryan Fenkart plays Huey Calhoun, the white DJ who helped stop the segregation of black music in the Fifties’.   The character is a composite for the actual (Deewey Phillips) who crossed the racial divide to Beale Street.  Memphis’s music is also a fiction – David Bryan of Bon Jovi has done a good job suggesting rock ‘n roll of the time –Little Richard, the girl groups, Chuck Berry, but the Tony Award- winning music is circa 2009. Joe DiPietro, who wrote the book and lyrics,  added a love story for Huey. Felicia Boswell plays Felicia the singer who catches the DJ’s heart and she’s a powerhouse, beautiful and smart. It’s hard to see how she would go for this wacky white guy with the bad accent though Huey’s rubbery limbs and silly antics could grow on you.

Felicia’s brother Delray (Quentin Darrington) plays the disapproving stoic in a voice that’s huge and glowing. Julie Johnson  is a Huey’s fiesty Mama Gladys. There are few weak roles to Memphis’s  large cast.  The practically nonstop singing and dancing floods the house with optimism. More than need be given the ugliness of the racial barriers that also limn this story. Blacks and white weren’t allowed to be seen together in the South in those days let alone to marry.  Yet when issues of race rear their head the musical too often veers sideways off into commercial song or dance.  Still, Sergio Trujillo’s choreography makes you feel good and the cast is terrific with it.  The musical direction is even better though the miking could have been toned down. Memphis is part of the Broadway at the Kimmel series.

Wilma does Body Talk

Body Awareness by Annie Baker,  The Wilma, January 4-Feb. 5, 2012. Review of  Opening night Jan. 11 for WRTI, 90. 1 fm

Annie Baker, whose witty Becky Shaw was here two seasons  ago has Body Awareness on The Wilma boards.  Anne Kauffman again directs. With a title like Body Awareness  there will be laughs; for this taste not enough. Baker, who was raised in Amherst (MA) where her mother taught,  has created a fictional  Shirley College in Vermont. Body Awareness Week – a proactive way of addressing eating disorders! – has been organized by Phyllis (Grace Gonglewski), the pysch professor who loves Joyce (Mary Martello), the mother of a  socially challenged son who may  have Asperger’s Syndrome.

Baker’s play attempts to poke gentle fun at alternative lifestyles and the academic Feminist rants against the traditional “white male gaze.” But the play’s own Political Correctness does itself in.  We’re presented with 20- year- old Jared’s discomfort  with his body and sexuality; then his mother, Joyce’s low self- esteem in the lesbian relationship… When Frank, the visiting artist arrives, Joyce’s attraction to his work with  the female nude  threatens Phyllis personally and her big Week. A dysfunctional family appears to come unglued.

The versatile Gonglewski gives the feminist professor a sly earnestness  swinging from exuberant pronouncements to stern morality. Martello whose comic turns have won Philadelphians over doesn’t have as much opportunity for them here as she plays the anxious mother. She and Gonglewski are first rate but Baker’s material doesn’t rise to their level.  LA’s Christopher Councill as Frank suggests enough sleeze and compassion to keep his motives in doubt.  Dustin Ingram — as the awkward Jared– has fine timing  and a waywardness to suggest something is indeed ‘off.’ But excellent acting,  and staging  (Mimi Lien) can’t overcome the problems of plot. Who believes a teacher’s son would not be tested for Asperger’s?  Baker’s script throws hints about characters it fails to resolve.  It’s tough to talk about sex let alone make it funny.  Body Awareness at The Wilma through Feb. 5, is often a downer and too self- conscious  for its own good.

Beethoven Sunday

Philadelphia Orchestra, David Zinman, conductor; C.J. Chang, viola; Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center; January 6m, 7, 8m,  2012; Review of January 8m for WRTI, 90.1 fm.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Beethoven on Sunday afternoon at Verizon Hall was sold out. The box office line for Will Call and Student Rush snaked almost to the sidewalk at the Kimmel Center. Guest maestro David Zinman got a rousing reception. So did principal violost C.J . Chang whose vehicle was the William Walton Concerto for Viola.  Chang’s performance was a model of romantic lyricism and control and his colleagues outdid themselves echoing his virtuosity. Walton’s concerto never gets played enough. Once you hear it, (unless you’re hard of heart) you’ll want instant replay as Chang’s soulful performance deserved.

The Philadelphians opened with Michael Torke’s Ash, from 1988.  It’s an earthy centered piece.  Self-assured without being cocky; easy on the ears without being slick. Everyone is playing most of the time and often in the middle registers. It’s bold but not violently aggressive and the use of woodwinds is spare enough to make their presence all the more beautiful when they are engaged. Torke’s consistent rhythms excite without disturbing. Zinman handled these forces extremely well.

Also deserving kudos were assistant principals Juliette Kang (in the role of concertmaster); Yumi Kendall’s first cello and associate Kirsten Johnson who served as first viola throughout the concert.

Beethoven’s Fifth was the finish. A symphonic interpretation that did not over-reach. No nonsense all mastery by these players and Zinman who has led Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra for 16 seasons.  It was quick-witted Beethoven and quicker than most readings. It was a fine thing to see Verizon filled with so many appreciative listeners.  Many curtain calls no encores. Is the Philadelphia Orchestra turning a corner with its audiences or am I wishful thinking here?