Review: ‘Memphis’ on the big screen

"It's not like being there live," some purists say about recent efforts to offer live- or taped-from-the-stage productions in movie houses.

They are right, of course. But they are also missing a key point. We can't always be at a live show the same way we can't always be at a live sporting event. And seeing an opera or a musical or a play in a movie theater isn't necessarily the next best thing to being there–it's a different way of being there.

Case in point: "Memphis," the Broadway musical available for a few days in high definition at movie theaters around the country. What's unusual here is that the Tony-winning Best Musical is still running in New York. Producers seem willing to risk that the show's brief on-screen availability won't cut into its Broadway box office–and might even enhance its appeal when the touring company hits a city near you (Not a factor here, since it's not on next year's Broadway in Indianapolis lineup).

Not having seen the Broadway production, I can't tell you what works on screen that didn't work on stage (or vice versa). I can say, though, that the show comes across fine at the multiplex, the music is solid but without a breakout number (Think "Dreamgirls" without "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"), and the supporting cast is fine. Telling the tale of a white Memphis deejay's efforts to bring rhythm and blues to the center of the radio dial, "Memphis" doesn't feel like anything new or different–until you consider how few Broadway musicals these days that aren't based on a movie and/or contain pre-existing songs.

What "Memphis" does have is the guts to put a very specific character rather than a bland hero at the center of the action. How you take Chad Kimball's eccentric performance will determine in large part how you feel about the production if not the play. "He certainly makes bold choices," said a patron at the screening I attended. And she's right–and those bold choices might be easier to take from the balcony rather than in close up.

Can we believe that the stunning Montego Glover falls for this guy? I didn't. But that doesn't keep me from recommending a trip to "Memphis," either on screen or in New York.

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