Why Is Memphis Staying Open and Bye Bye Birdie Is Closing?

December 25, 2009

A few decades back, when Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke danced and sang in
Bye Bye Birdie,
I loved it and learned all the songs. Dick Van Dyke was funny, vulnerable, and lovably dorky; Chita Rivera was brassy with an ironic edge. They were both dancers you don’t forget—and they had chemistry. In this season’s remake, without two stars of total individuality, both the humor and the pathos are lost. The story comes off as not really delightful, but lite. Even Bill Irwin’s spectacularly obsessive clowning can’t save it. Bye Bye Birdie will close on January 11.


Meanwhile, musicals like
and Memphis are reeling them in. It’s partly because the dancing is great in both of them. But it’s also because they deal with real issues and are not just escapist. Bill T. Jones’ Fela! is about the father of Afro-beat who uses his music to fight oppression and corruption in Nigeria. Christopher Ashley’s Memphis tells the story of a white guy who falls in love with black music (and a black singer) and puts “race music” on the air. It’s funny and insightful about pre-civil-rights race relations. The dancing, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, is probably not exactly what people were doing in all-black clubs in 1940s Memphis, but the combination of Broadway, jazz, and jitterbug is authentic enough.


After seeing these two shows, you feel you’ve really
something—and learned something. It seems to me that Broadway is getting serious rather than getting escapist. Maybe because of having a more serious president, people are more in the mood to tackle serious subjects within their entertainment.


It’ll be interesting to see what happens with
Burn the Floor.
  It’s a wall-to-wall dance show, for which I should be happy, but it’s so hard-edged, so completely influenced by the blockbuster dance shows on TV (bump-grind-twist-shimmy), that there is no breath in it. No characters, no emotion. Actually, I take that back. There is one very affecting scene that keeps coming back to me. One of the stars, Kym Johnson, watches a couple dance with painful envy. Clearly the guy is someone she loves. Her arms float out toward him while he dances close with the other woman. Eventually the other woman slips away, and Johnson gets to dance happily with her guy. But then the other woman slips back in, and Johnson is left on the outside again. Maybe it was just her fantasy that she got to have a last dance with the man she is pining for. I’ll bet a lot of women related to this scene. But mostly Burn the Floor (directed and choreographed by Jason Gilkison) was one long drawn-out episode of So You Think You Can Dance or Dancing With the Stars. A judge from SYTYCD, Mary Murphy, trots out her classic ballroom style. I can see that her waltzing is meant to show how connected she is to her partner. But in the rest of the evening, that connection is lost in the fast and furious “international style” on exhibit here.