Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Million Dollar Quartet" entertains

"Million Dollar Quartet" packs as much fun and rock-and-roll music into 90 uninterrupted minutes as you'll likely ever see on a stage. A special preview performance Wednesday night at Barton College's Kennedy Theater had the audience tapping feet, clapping hands and cheering the music of a magical episode in 1950s Memphis.

The quartet comprises Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. The play dramatizes a brief meeting of the four rising stars at Sun Records, owned by rock music midwife Sam Phillips. The four legends had their starts at Sun Records but drifted away from Phillips, who had molded their musical styles.

With narrative from Phillips, played ably by David McClutchey, the play describes the beginnings of rock-and-roll, when a young, post-war generation hungered for music faster, sassier, more raucous than their parents' mellow Big Band sound. Phillips recognized that hunger and found musicians to fill the void.

That story is familiar to rock historians and to aging baby boomers, but the cast of "Million Dollar Quartet" put flesh and sound to the bare bones of the story. Each of the quartet legends took his turn at songs that are modern classics, and, to the cast's credit, they captured the sounds, the gestures and the excitement of the characters.

Joe Boover as Elvis copied "The King's" swaying hips and insouciant look. Ted Bushman as Johnny Cash swung his guitar like a pendulum in the Cash style and found Cash's deep voice on "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues." Ian Fairlee as Jerry Lee Lewis pounded the piano like the original "Killer" and exuded his character's wild sexuality.

It was Michael Kennedy's guitar playing, more than his imitation of Carl Perkins, that set him apart and carried the musical numbers. It's hard to imagine the play being a success without his electric guitar playing lead. His lines remind the audience that, except for an unfortunate accident, he might have ridden the crest of popularity that carried Elvis to superstardom, partly on the strength of Perkins' song, "Blue Suede Shoes."

Taylor Kraft as Dyanne, girlfriend of Elvis, takes a turn at the microphone and belts out a memorable "Fever," then provides a sensual background by swaying and swinging as others sang.

Much credit has to go to Jon Rossi's work as drummer and musical director. The drumbeat leads the way in many of the songs, and Rossi makes sure the drums are heard. Jason William Steffen, as Carl Perkins' brother, keeps the beat on the upright bass and also dances with and climbs on the big bass as the music inspires him.

This entire play is an ode to the early days of rock and roll, and if you lived through it, or if you've tapped your feet to the music, you'll love this play. It's 90 minutes of history set to music. 

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