Memphis’ stages are currently all full, and filled with all kinds of goodness, near-goodness, and up-to-no-goodness. Here’s a comprehensive rundown of what’s happening this weekend in Memphis theater.
The Book of Mormon is a funny, filthy, satirical buddy story in the spirit of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road pictures, but with a lot more profanity. It tells the story of two missionaries with conflicting positions who are sent to Uganda to recruit more Mormons. Their efforts are challenged by famine, disease, and a warlord with a profane name unfit for print.
Ryan Bondy, who plays Elder Price describes the Trey Parker and Matt Stone musical as the “most fun” he’s ever had. “And it's not just about the humor,” Bondy says. “This is a reality of what Mormons have to go through in regards to their mission and the reality of their journey and the reality of what was going on in Uganda, a godless place full of poverty, AIDS, and starvation."
The Book of Mormon opened to rave reviews in 2011, picking up 14 Tony nominations and nine wins, including Best Musical.
All the Way is an overstuffed sausage-grinder about Lyndon Johnson’s first 11 months in the White House. It begins with Kennedy’s assassination and ends with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and LBJ’s eventual election.
Playhouse’s LBJ, George Dudley, is always a pleasure to watch on stage. He’s a perfect choice for the big liberal from Texas, and though he seems less confident than usual, when he’s on, he’s on fire.
Curtis C. Jackson and John Maness stand out as NAACP leader Roy Wilkins and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Greg Boller relishes his time inside the skin of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Michael Detroit makes a sympathetic, if never entirely convincing, Hubert Humphrey. And John Hemphill, Sam Weakly, and John Moore all do some fine character work. The women of the ’60s are finely represented by Claire Kolheim, Irene Crist, and Kim Sanders.
All the Way should make us see that soldiers are blown up in boardrooms not on battlefields, and how even progressive politics can play out like a slow motion lynching. It should make us flinch and look away often. But it never does. It’s an election year, though, which may put audiences in the mood for a three-hour reminder of the “good old" "bad old" days when even an oil-funded politician as crude and bullying as Donald Trump could dream of a "more perfect union" and get elected.
Charles Smith’s Free Man of Color is a melodrama more relevant than well-told. It’s the story of a slave with uncommonly kind masters who, as a newly freed man, is given a chance to attend college. It’s also a story of 19th-century liberalism, and a man of learning who staked his reputation on the progressive belief that, with the proper education and rigorous training, exceptional Christian males of African descent might one day go back to Africa, conquer other brown people, and rule over them as God intended.
Although Free Man of Color is inspired by the true story of John Newton Templeton, who attended university in the free state of Ohio, Charles Smith's play is essentially a work of historical fiction. That doesn't mean it's not true.
Templeton, played with boundless decency by Bertram Williams, is invited to live with OU President Robert Wilson, who treats his precocious student like a son when he's not treating him like the Elephant Man. Wilson's wife, played with chest-thumping authority by Kilby Yarbrough, Jane Wilson is a period-perfect hysteric, forever on the verge of going all "Yellow Wallpaper" in the complete absence agency and purpose. She creates even more context by voicing her concerns for native Americans who are hunted like coyotes.
Michael Ewing, a standout in last season’s remarkable production of The Seagull at Playhouse on the Square, is ramrod straight as Wilson, a self-enamored political animal with a gift for otherizing.
Free Man of Color wants more dynamic treatment but still succeeds in presenting audiences with plenty of food for thought.
With Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim takes audiences on a musical, psycho-sexual romp through the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The Sweeney Todd composer’s take on these classic bedtime stories is often less like Disney animations than a Hitchcock shocker. If, that is, there was a Hitchcock shocker about Disney characters who develop complex psychological issues after spending a couple of bloody, belief-defying days fending off witches and giants, eyeball-pecking birds, and horny conceited princes.
Into the Woods is jam packed with morals from other fables and fairy tales rhythmically chanted by actors during scene transitions. It doesn’t really have a moral of its own though, unless its “happily ever after” only happens in the movies.
Theater Memphis’ Into the Woods is lovely to look at, with lush storybook designs by Jack Yates that are complemented by Jeremy Allen Fisher’s even lusher lighting. Voices are strong, the orchestra sounds fantastic, and the acting is solid top to bottom.
Into the Woods is relentlessly modern putting it somewhat at odds with Theatre Memphis’ production, but only intermittently so. The things that make the show so sumptuous are the very things that dull the popular musical’s sharpest edges, and un-sex it a bit. What’s left remains a gorgeous, exuberantly performed joy to behold that threatens to tip gaudy.
Into the Woods is frequently performed and Memphis has seen its share of excellent evil witches. Renee Davis Brame may be the best of all. Imagine Bette Davis eating Bernadette Peters to absorb her superpowers, and you’ll get the picture.
If you love The Producers, you may like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Both were funny films about elaborate cons before they were transformed into glitzy throwback musicals about elaborate cons. The show boasts a lively and hummable score by David Yabek, and a nearly complete absence of romantic goo-goo.
Who will win the title of Miss Glamouresse? Beauty competitions are parodied when smarmy host Guy Cavalier introduced six men dressed as female stereotypes who sing songs about being “natural born” women and compete in swimsuit, talent, gown, and spokesmodel categories. Of course truth is stranger than fiction: the show’s entire premise seems less novel in the wake of TV phenoms like Honey Boo Boo and Ru Paul’s Drag Race. But this Circuit Playhouse revival is stacked with talent, and built-in audience participation ensures you’ll never see the same show twice.
Emerald Theatre Company presents a series of LGBT-centric monologues about everything from hate crimes to misnomers for lesbians, and “the not so confusing confusion about bisexuality.”
And that’s what’s happening in Memphis theater this weekend. It’s a lot. Choose wisely. Or don’t. There really is something for everybody, and there’s plenty to recommend all around.