Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
Million Dollar Quartet
These days it is rare to experience the energy, sound and excitement that those bygone shows generated, unless you are one of the lucky ones to witness the Great Lakes Theatre Million Dollar Quartet now playing in the Hanna Theatre at Playhouse Square in Cleveland. The energy level grows with each number until electricity is charging the air with rock and roll.
On December 4, 1956, rock and roll history was made when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash gathered at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, where Sam Phillips had launched (or in Jerry Lee Lewis' case was about to launch) their careers. The songs from that original gathering were mainly a collection of gospel favorites that each performer was familiar with. As he was the biggest star at the time, Presley sang lead, with Perkins and Cash on background vocals, and Lewis playing piano. Presley was accompanied that day by Marilyn Evans, a professional dancer. In all, 47 songs or parts of songs have survived from the original session being released in 1987 as "The Complete Million Dollar Session."
The session was dramatized as a jukebox musical with book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and appeared on Broadway, after several regional productions. A large amount of poetic license was used in the making of this show, with only three gospel numbers and the rest famous covers or original hits as performed by the four singers. Also in this version, the dancer Marilyn has been replaced by Dyanne (a singer), who does two solos and serves as backup on a number of rock and roll standards.
The Great Lakes Theater production features James Ludwig as Sam Phillips, Gabe Aronson as Jerry Lee Lewis, James Barry as Carl Perkins, Sky Seals as Johnny Cash, Sean Michael Buckley as Elvis Presley, and Kristen Beth Williams as Dyanne. Eric Scott Anthony appears as Brother Jay (stand-up bass) and Dave Sonneborn as Fluke (drums).
The set by Adam Koch is as faithful a recreation as one could ask for of the original Sun Records recording studio in Memphis. Everything is exactly to that period, down to the smallest detail. The costuming by Lauren T. Roark is right on the mark, matching each singer's personality to a T. Lighting by Kirk Bookman accents the stage area perfectly and the all-important sound design by Bart Fasbender is loud and proud.
Unlike many jukebox musicals, there is a solid storyline running through the show. There is a reason why each current and past member of Sun Records just happens to be there that day. Jerry Lee Lewis is there to record his first number one single. Johnny Cash is there to tell Phillips that he is signing with Columbia Records. Carl Perkins is there to record his newest hopeful, "Matchbox," but will soon be leaving with his brother and the drummer to greener pastures at RCA. Elvis is there to convince Phillips to join him at RCA in order to produce his records. While things get tense in the end, the rock and roll music wins out.
Audience members are treated to such hits as "Blue Suede Shoes," "Who Do You Love?," "Sixteen Tons," "Long Tall Sally," "Great Balls of Fire," and "See You Later Alligator," to name a few of the 22 songs represented. What makes this performance so unique is that all of the music is generated by the actors themselves. There is no hidden band. It is a live rock and roll extravaganza and these guys and gal are not just good, they are great.
At times, Gabe Aronson as Lewis is playing the piano so fast and hard you cannot see his hands but as a blur. Sky Seals has that deep Cash baritone that rattles the crystal chandeliers. James Barry kills it as Carl Perkins, with his freewheeling rock and roll guitar, and Sean Michael Buckley is the King as Elvis. Of special note is Eric Scott Anthony as Brother Jay, demonstrating amazing gymnastics with a full-size stand-up bass, and Dave Sonneborn is no slouch keeping the beat behind the drum set.
If you're looking for a healthy dose of good old rock and roll played with all of its original firecracker energy, this is a show you will not want to miss. The cast has amazing chemistry that shines past the footlights clear back to the farthest seats. Million Dollar Quartet will have you rockin' and rollin' in the aisles.
Million Dollar Quartet, through May 26, 2019, at Great Lakes Theatre, Playhouse Square, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E 14th St., Cleveland OH. For tickets and information, visit greatlakestheater.org, call 216-241-6000, or visit the Playhouse Square Ticket office located in the outer lobby of the State Theatre.