Home Valley Advocate Stagestruck: Rock’n’Roll Hootenanny

Stagestruck: Rock’n’Roll Hootenanny

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You could call Million Dollar Quartet a fictional documentary. The show is based on a real-life incident and most of the basic facts are true, but almost everything that happens onstage is made up.

This is a jukebox musical in a literal sense: Most of the two dozen songs were fixtures on those brightly lit Seeburg boxes in the early days of rock’n’roll when, as long we had a dime, the music would never stop. And from the look of it, most of the patrons who are bestowing standing ovations on Danny Eaton’s lively production, at the Majestic Theater  to Oct. 23, were teenagers themselves when those songs were new.

The facts are these. On the afternoon of December 4th, 1956, four now-legendary musicians happened to be in the Memphis studio of Sam Phillips’ now-legendary Sun Records at the same time. Carl Perkins, whose “Blue Suede Shoes” had been a number-one hit but was struggling to find a successful follow-up, was recording that day. Phillips brought in his latest discovery, a country boy named Jerry Lee Lewis, to play piano on the session. Another Sun artist, Johnny Cash, who was breaking out on the country charts, dropped in, and so did Elvis Presley, who had originally recorded for Sun but after defecting to RCA Victor the previous year had quickly become a triple-gold-selling star and budding movie idol.

m-quartet-1The impromptu jam session that ensued leaned heavily on old gospel and country songs – four Southern boys recalling the tunes they’d learned on the family’s front porch. Understandably, this stage reimaging ignores most of those, in favor of the four singers’ early hits, many of which hadn’t yet been recorded in 1956. Greg Trochlil’s set recreates the cramped recording studio (complete with period microphones – the performers wear modern headset mics), flanked by the front entrance and the recording booth.

So we hear Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line,” Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” and Presley’s “Hound Dog” and “That’s All Right,” as well as all three joining Perkins on “Blue Suede Shoes.” Oddly, the score doesn’t include “Don’t Be Cruel,” which was in the Sun session, when Elvis did an admiring impression of Jackie Wilson’s slow-groove version, which he reckoned was “much better than that record of mine.”

Most of the numbers follow one another with barely a segué (“Hey, Johnny, why don’t you sing us that prison song of yours?”) – a kind of all-star rock’n’roll hootenanny, occasionally interrupted by pieces of backstory and moments of tension that drive what there is of the plot.

Sam Phillips (a smooth, personable Jay Sefton) serves as narrator, introducing the play as a memory piece and stopping the action now and then for a flashback to show us how he first met and developed these million-dollar properties. In Phillips’ telling, he convinced Johnny Cash to put aside the gospel songs he favored and gave him “the courage to not sound like everyone else,” and saw in Elvis Presley “the singer who could light a fire under a song like those great Negro [R&B] singers.”

million-dollar-quartet-3aThe plot interludes, drawn very loosely from history, include Phillips’ urgency to get Cash to re-up with Sun before his contract expires, and Elvis’s desire to work with Phillips again, to which end RCA has offered to buy Sun Records outright – an offer that expires at midnight. Some conflict develops over Perkins’ resentment of Presley, whose star has risen faster and brighter than his, and his dislike of Lewis, the brash newcomer who doesn’t even play guitar – but can rock a piano.

While the four key performers bear only a passing resemblance to the iconic men they portray, they are skilled actors and more-than-capable musicians – skilled instrumentalists as well as singers who manage creditable impersonations of their characters’ distinctive styles. Dan Whelton, as hot-tempered Carl Perkins, plays a fiery if not always fluid lead guitar, and Brian Michael Henry’s Jerry Lee Lewis is every bit as impertinent and uninhibited as the original, down to his trademark keyboard shenanigans involving feet as well as fingers.

Corbin Mayer is appropriately brooding as Johnny Cash and just manages to hit those subterranean low notes. Colin Patrick Ryan is the least lookalike cast member, but he’s got the twitchy leg and hip-swivel down pat, and in his Elvis you can see a mix of swagger and awe at his sudden new stardom. (He gets a big laugh when Elvis complains about recently getting booed in Las Vegas and vows, “I’ll never play Vegas again!”)

million-dollar-quartet-4aPresley’s girlfriend at the time, aspiring dancer Marilyn Evans, was in the studio with him. Here she’s fictional “Dyanne,” an aspiring singer, who gets two solos – the torch song “Fever” and the R&B classic “I Hear You Knockin’” – but for the most part Kaytlyn Vandeloecht has little to do but hang on Elvis’s arm, evade Jerry Lee’s flirtations, and wiggle during the up-tempo numbers.

Music director Mitch Chakour has amped up a number of those tempos to the point that some individual grooves are lost, but for the most part the music is solid and refreshing, with a three-man “house band” – Aaron Porchelli on guitar, Don Rovero on stand-up bass and Mike Santinello at the drum kit – ably backing up the singers.

In his program notes, Danny Eaton recalls that the Majestic Theater’s first season opened with another jukebox musical, The Buddy Holly Story. This first production in the company’s 20th-anniversary season fittingly closes that circle. In his curtain speech the other night, he mused that some portion of his (impressively loyal) audience may well have been there for that first opening night.

 

elaine-bromka-as-betty-ford_smFLOTUS and POTUS

Million Dollar Quartet is one kind of blast from what we now view as a more innocent past. Tea for Three,  coming to the Majestic hot on its heels, is quite another. Emmy winner Elaine Bromka’s comic and poignant one-woman show spotlights three generations of presidential  spouses: Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford – a trifecta of First Ladies who do what Mrs. Nixon once called “the hardest unpaid job in the world.”

The two-night stand is perfectly timed: November 7th and 8th, the eve of this year’s presidential election and the night itself, letting out just as the history-making – or breaking – returns start coming in.

Production photos by Lee Chambers
Elaine Bromka as Betty Ford, Ron Marotta photo

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