Thanks a ‘Million’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

On a December day in 1956, something extraordinary happened.

And the fact that it did happen, and occur largely spontaneously, is practically unbelievable – but then, there’s the sound recordings, and that famous photo. On that day, in the little studio of Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., four legends – Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis – held an impromptu gospel/country/rockabilly jam session that a local newspaper would declare the “Million Dollar Quartet.”

The Broadway musical of that same title, commemorating that day, is presented locally by Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through Oct. 2.

In the play’s dramatization, Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz) and his brothers are in a recording session, trying to come up with his next hit, when Sun’s owner and producer Sam Phillips (Don Farrell) surprises him with the label’s latest signee – a hyper Louisiana boy, Lewis (Taylor Gray), who is days away from his own first hit. Phillips wants to add boogie-woogie piano to enrich Perkins’ rockabilly sound – which the guitar legend resists, at first.

Meanwhile, Cash (Brandon Alstott) is expected to stop by; Phillips has a surprise contract extension for him, but Cash has a surprise of his own. Then, Presley (Adam Tran), who started with Sun but sings for RCA, stops by with his latest girlfriend (Betsy Norton), and can’t resist picking up a guitar and joining in. All four singers, and even the young woman, sing solos and harmonies of familiar songs from the era, including the stars’ biggest hits.

Of course, there’s also a little drama as Cash and Phillips need to resolve conflicting plans, Jerry Lee gets a little too brash, and Phillips seriously considers the future of his struggling operation. We also get flashbacks to show what the Sun boss first saw in each of these eventual legends. But overall, the music is what drives the show.

And what a wonderful show it is. Gray was understudy for Lewis on the musical’s national tour, but is overjoyed to be the number one Killer for ATI, as are we who see him expertly capture the energy and raw talent of Jerry Lee. Sevelovitz, also no stranger to his role, plays the heck out of his guitar as Perkins, recreating the look, sound and attitude of the original man in Blue Suede Shoes. The local actors: Alstott seems right at home as the Man in Black, Tran radiates The King’s charisma, and Norton is as charming as ever as beautiful Dyanne (based on Elvis’s actual companion; her name was changed to avoid confusion with another personality of the era). ATI co-founder Farrell ties it all together as the man in charge. The talents of Kroy Presley as Brother Jay on stand-up bass and Nathan Shew as Fluke on drums ably round out the cast. Direction is by the nationally-renowned stage and TV director DJ Salisbury.

The action takes place in one movie-length act, ends with a rousing encore for the curtain call, and is satisfying throughout. The content is family-friendly (aside from period-appropriate stage cigarettes) and even includes a couple of sacred songs.

Performances are Sept. 23-25 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2; call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

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