BWW Review: Early Legends of Rock and Roll Light Up the Stage in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET at Riverside Center
Four towering music legends live on in a rousing, tune-filled walk down memory lane at Fredericksburg's Riverside Center for the Performing Arts. Fans of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins need look no further than the retrospective musical MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, now bringing audiences to their feet through March 5.
This show has made the rounds from Chicago, to a healthy Broadway run and now is taking its place among the most popular revue-like shows in regional theaters. Riverside Center has assembled a terrific cast of triple threat performers for this production. Each one pays tribute to their subject without attempting an impersonation. But their singing and musicianship are pretty much right on the money on all counts.
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET pays tribute to Perkins, Lewis, Cash and Presley, and man who helped make their careers, Sam Phillips, producer at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Starting with Perkins, Phillips recorded and personally distributed the hit songs that put these legends on the map. Johnny Cash and Elvis followEd Perkins on the charts and both were quickly wooed by bigger record labels and opportunities. Jerry Lee Lewis, barely 21 in 1956, was Phillips' new find, a live wire performer who could make a piano seem like a honky-tonk band. Under the guise of a friendly visit, Phillips brings his four prodigies together for one last time, fostering a jam session that was documented in a now historic photo and recording - the impetus for the show. Phillips also planned to sign Cash to a renewed contract, which brings up a whole other set of complications for the small-time record producer.
The jam session-contract signing plot has enough substance to move the story forward, but the musical performances are the meat and potatoes of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. Sometimes, good old meat and potatoes serve as delicious and filling comfort food that fills you up and is oh so satisfying and this show offers comfort, joy, and will leave you wanting more
Serving up stellar performances at Riverside, let's begin with guitar virtuoso Todd Meredith, playing Perkins. Meredith takes on such songs as "Who Do You Love?" and "See You Later Alligator" like they were written for him, with clear vocals and guitar handling that is nothing short of perfection. Meredith also makes clear the wounded pride and resentment Perkins felt at Cash and Presley for pushing him down on the record charts.
As the tall, dark Johnny Cash, Stephen Edwards Horst has the deep voice and straightforward demeanor of the straight arrow member of the pack. (Cash's darker days of booze and drinking were still to come.) Horst handles the Cash songs, such as "Folsom Prison Blues," "Sixteen Tons," and "Walk the Line" with effortless style.
For "the King of Rock and Roll" Riverside has brought in an award-winning Elvis impersonator to shake, rattle and roll. Kavan Hashemian won the prize as the rock and roll era Presley on the BBC's "World's Greatest Elvis" in the U.K., and has taken his Elvis act all around the U.S. Hashemian has the look, the moves and the voice that's for sure and his renditions of Presley's early signature songs shine. "Hound Dog," "That's Alright Mama," and "Hound Dog" are just a few of his highlights.
Rounding out the quartet with the panache of a bantam rooster and a thousand watt energy level is Gavin Rohrer who has a field day as Louisiana's own wild child, Jerry Lee Lewis. Young, brash, overconfident, and a master of the ivories, Lewis is restless to start his career and join the ranks of Phillips' other discoveries. As Lewis, Rohrer brings all of the piano man's quirks and personality to bear, while unleashing a fury on the piano. Whether playing backup for Perkins, Presley and Cash or letting rip with a Lewis tune, Rohrer is a firecracker onstage. "Real Wild Child," "Great Balls of Fire," and "Whole Lotta Shakin'" get their due and brought the audience to its feet.
Other musical highlights are provided by Presley's lady friend Dyanne - played by Teresa Danskey - who adds a sexy and feminine touch to Peggy Lee's "Fever" and the old standard"I Hear You Knockin'." The quartet is also backed up by the entertaining and lively Brother Jay on bass and Fluke on percussion. As Jay, Jason Steffen handles the stand-up bass like it was a play toy; Jamie Pittle, as Fluke, keeps things moving on drums.
The show is certainly a showcase for the memorable tunes made famous by Lewis, Presley, Cash and Perkins. Being a speculation on the one-night only jam session, December 4, 1956, the group numbers allows the performers to Raise the Roof over and over again. Dean Martin's "Memories Are Made of This," the old fashioned "Down by the Riverside," and the beautiful gospel song "Peace in the Valley" are just a sampling of the classic tunes brought to life again.
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET would not be complete without Sam Phillips, the founder of the feast. As big-hearted and hard-working Phillips, Alan Hoffman immediately connects with the audience and the actors playing his four discoveries. Hoffman is one of Riverside's most recognizable and reliable actors and here he does not disappoint.
Robert A.K. Gonyo provides un-fussy direction and keeps the action moving. The actor-musicians were overseen by music director Garrett Jones, shaping the arrangements and helping maintain the period sound of the early rock/rock-a-billy era.
Whether you are a Baby Boomer who swooned over Elvis or danced to Jerry Lee's music, or a hipster who appreciates all things retro, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET is a music fan's dream come true. The boys come together in the show for "Let's Have a Party." I can't think of a better way to describe this dose of nostalgia, served up with style at Riverside.
Follow Jeff Walker on Twitter - @jeffwalker66
Running time: 2 hours - 1 intermission.
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts runs January 11 to March 5, 2017. For more information or tickets, click HERE
Single Ticket sales, subscriptions/Groups: 540.370.4300.
The Riverside Center for the Performing Arts • 95 Riverside Parkway • Fredericksburg, VA 22406
Photo Credit: RIVERSIDE CENTER