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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Million Dollar Quartet
James Barry's direction of the December 4, 1956 impromptu jam session at the hallowed Sun Records studio in Memphis, brings to life the considerable talents of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and the actors musicians who play them. Narrated by the now-famous impresario Sam Phillips, it is a simple story-telling plot line, punctuated by fabulous music from America's collective past. But Barry's direction has deepened the darker background and rivalries of these major talents and through more-nuanced performances and simple production values underscored the music with the pain and the poverty that produced it.
The show opens on a particular afternoon when Carl Perkins of "Blue Suede Shoes" fame along with fellow musicians, brother Jay on bass and Fluke Holland, the drummer, are attempting to create another hit for Perkins who has been struggling to regain his former #1 status. Driven by the reminder of abject poverty and perks of new-found fame, Perkins is clearly feeling pressure to recreate the new sure fire hit which now eludes him. Newcomer and yet-to-be a superstar Jerry Lee Lewis is there for piano backup and his brusque in-your face arrogance unnerves Perkins;he tension is palpable.
Into this mix wanders Johnny Cash (Bill Sheets) with his low voiced formality and his religious roots and morality in conflict with his and Phillips' commercial concern. He is there ostensibly to renew his contract with Phillips, but, of course, is immediately drawn into the recording session.
As the group warms up the audience with such Rock standards as Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," Lewis's "Real Wild Child" and Cash's "Folsom Prison," who should cruise by but Elvis (Brycen Katolinsky)himself. He's newly returned from Hollywood and a disastrous Las Vegas gig accompanied by vivacious Dyanne (Christy Coco). The group goes into action taking turns between the scant dialogue and patter to belt out musical favorites such as "That's All Right, Mama," "I Walk the Line," "Fever," "Great Balls of Fire" and a host of other Fifties Favorites-You get the idea!
Though these were not the songs originally recorded on December 4, 1956, the setup allows the authors, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. a walk down memory lane and pulls the audience into a time when America obsessed over the nuclear bomb and teens danced to the new found freedom of this irresistible beat.
All of the actors bear a resemblance to the R&R hall of famers they portray. Dressed in appropriate '50's stye or raffish country western dress and appropriate pompadours, each actor is just enough of the expected persona to satisfy the fantasy of this recreated concert. Elvis's hip shimmies are a remainder of the TV censors' nightmares which cut his appearance below the waist. Jerry Lee's wild man is alive and throbbing through his suggestive lyrics and thrashing finger exploding piano paroxyms..
Everyone , even Ben Nordstrom as Sam Philips in the finale, show us that they are really accomplished musicians who use their instruments and voices to take the audience on a wild ride that birthed R&R and changed America's cultural history and attitudes.
Barry's direction and Jessica Ford's costume and scenic design of Sun Studio (a former auto repair shop) act as the understandable beacon for Phillips' troubled and at times undisciplined protéges. Throughout the session there are hints of how each of their lives will play out in the world of fame, money and, of course, eventual self-destruction that seemed to plague so many of these musicians.
Little asides and scowls hint at the seeds of discontent, ambition and insecurity before the music recaptures them and the audience into the irresistible memory-laden soulful gospel or pulsing R&R, rockabilly expressions of human emotion and life. And, yes, the audience s still dancing in the aisles.
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Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Directed and Music direction by James Barry
Cast: Gabriel Aronson (Jerry Lee Lewis) Christy Coco (Dyanne) Nathan Yates Douglass (Brother Jay) Brycen Katolinsky (Elvis Presley) David W. Lincoln (Fluke) Ben Nordstrom (Sam Phillips) Bill Sheets (Johnny Cash) Colin Summers (Carl Perkins)
Scene and Costume design: Jessica Ford
Lighting design: Oliver Wason
Projections design: Nicholas Hussong
Sound design: Nathan Leigh
Stage Manager: Shelby North
Running Time: Ninety minutes plus; no intermission
Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA
From 6/14/17; opening 6/17/17; closing 7/15/17
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at June 22 performance
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