FELA! and MEMPHIS are both New Musicals opening on Broadway this fall, I saw both of them for free, they both feature a lot of dancing, and they both deal with issues that fit under the broad "race" umbrella. Though they have more in common than, say, MISS SAIGON and WAITING FOR GODOT, I admit that I will ultimately be comparing an apple to an orange and remarking at the differences in color, texture and flavor.
MEMPHIS is a work of fiction that, nonetheless, tells a story everyone knows involving segregation, the South, music, and the 1960s. FELA!, thought not really a linear narrative of any kind, nonetheless tells a story that, thought based on fact, is most likely new to the majority of audience members about oppression in Nigeria in the late 1970s.
MEMPHIS, though about musicians, has an unremarkable and derivative score that frequently fails to evoke the very specific genres the libretto references. FELA! is basically a jukebox musical, but it uses a jokebox many are unfamiliar with, by a man known to be an innovative musician, and explains--if in borderline tedious details--what is different about this music. However, though the music in MEMPHIS is often bland, it is just as consistently energetic and engaging, whereas FELA!'s jam session of a score allows the audience to disengage.
In MEMPHIS dance is used throughout, mostly to lift the numbers from the story, rather than to enhance the dramatic content of the songs. In FELA! the dance IS the story. If MEMPHIS's dramaturgy is chrystilline clear and FELA!'s often confusing, the power and insight FELA!'s dancing adds to the proceedings is unparalleded. MEMPHIS's choreographer--the ubiquitous Sergrio Trullio--is Broadway dancer-turned choreographer, and his work is consistently adequate and professional, if pedestrian in its use of verical lines and grids of toothy grinned chorines. FELA!'s Bill T Jones comes from the dance world and is adapting his career-long habit of movement as meaning, body as form and structure to a more accessible Broadway framework.
The result of the differences between the craft in MEMPHIS and FELA! is perhaps most clear in each musical's respective moment of Extreme Abuse against the protagonists. In MEMPHIS the moment feels essentially inevitable, leaving the audience with a Morales-esque feeling of nothingness. In FELA!--perhaps because it is legitimately shocking and new, it stuns. I don't know which of these productions will be more commercially successful, though FELA! will probably walk away with stronger reviews (especially if those impressed by its off-Broadway incarnation are similarly entertained). But, if MEMPHIS may perhaps embody the type of likable dance-and-belt-a-thon that many want right now, FELA!'s innovative dance (and stunningly imaginative lighting) are what Broadway needs.
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