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BWW Review: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Dominates Musically In Annapolis

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MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Dominates Musically In Arnold/Annapolis Area

I'm reminded of the late Yogi Berra's quote: "I love movies when I like them." I have a similar feeling about the genre known as Jukebox Musical- they don't always work, and many of them lack certain things I identify as critically important in earning the categorization of "musical theatre", including a compelling story, a character journey, a clear timeline and please for the love of humanity, clever dialogue to properly qualify. I didn't care for MAMA MIA!, haven't yet seen MOVIN' OUT or KINKY BOOTS, but I did like WE WILL ROCK YOU, and was very impressed with MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. So I'm no hater. But there are things that ought properly to be presented as Cabaret, although the very concept of Cabaret seems to have gone the way of chef salad and beer-cheese soup.

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, presented by Infinity Theatre Company, at the Children's Theatre of Annapolis facility opened to a full, enthusiastic house. The venue was rocking, no doubt about that.

The show is named after an album released in 1981, (and again a few years later with additional material, then in '90 as an Elvis album and recently as a 50th anniversary special edition) but the title was first used in a newspaper article that ran the day after the now-legendary jam session in 1956. The song-list on the '81 album resembles the songlist of the musical only very slightly, the actual session containing a great deal of gospel and Cash singing lead not at all. Adjustments for the purposes of a "musical" are understandable. That this show, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, earned Tony nominations in the categories of 'best book for a musical' and 'best musicals' indicates to me that 2010 had pretty slim pickings for musicals. Of the four pillars of drama mentioned in my first paragraph, only clever dialogue is present, and we wait until midway through Act 2 to hear it. Let me be blunt: this is not a good piece of theatre. If you're looking for strong characters, a plot, complications, motivation, set changes, mood, tone, subtext or any of a myriad of other theatrical values, stop. Just don't frustrate yourself.

If, however, you belong (even marginally) to a particular subset of music aficionados, if you remember the shocking nature of a certain Jerry Lee Lewis song title, seeing Elvis on Ed Sullivan, what instrument Carl Perkins played or buying a Johnny Cash gospel album, you may love this show.

Musically, there's much about this production that is admirable, make no mistake. Vocally and instrumentally, the performers do an excellent job of animating beloved legends.Their musicianship is impressive and Musical Director Amy Jones has done a terrific job creating authentic-sounding renditions of songs that most of the audience has memorized. JP Coletta's athletic interpretation of Jerry Lee is absurdly fun to watch and he hammers away at that upright piano as if it were indestructible. As Elvis, Travis Artz is enthusiastic and delivers excellent footwork. Adding some feminine energy to the show, Elvis' girlfriend "Dyanne" (her name was Marilyn) comes to the studio, and Bella Muller, in a saucy, sultry performance, blows the audience away singing 'Fever.' Binder and Bowden Casting has done a nice job filling these roles.

The underdog hero of this production is drummer Chris Karabelas, who just barely has a character name (it's Fluke) who is not only brilliant in every beat without overpowering everyone, but also dead on target with his timing whether he's looking at the other musicians or not. An incredibly close runner-up is bass player, Bob Abbott, who is charmingly understated and actually has a couple of lines

The characters seem two-dimensional, overdrawn or both, and I'm uncertain whether blame belongs to directors or writers. Interaction between characters is forced, exposition is obvious, factoids are awkwardly packaged, at least one particular Jerry Lee Lewis line is 'sanitized' and transitions between songs have all the elegance of two rusty tractors attempting a waltz. The timeline is tangled: in theory, all action takes place on one particular day, but the frequent 'flashbacks' of the characters give us no clear sense of temporality, and if Jimmy Lawlor's lighting design intended to help us out with that, it wasn't enough.

Everybody LOOKS good- the costuming not only looks authentic, each character is nicely differentiated from the others so there's no opportunity for confusion. Kudos to the production team, particularly wig and hair designer Molly Waltz.

A final caution: if, after having seen the stage show, you think you'd like to own the music from it to listen to in your car, do please pay attention to what you are purchasing. The reviews of the studio jam session recording are shockingly uninformed, and many naive buyers are desperately disappointed with the "real thing". If you want to hear what you see presented in the show, as opposed to the actual jam session, be sure to look for the words Original Broadway Cast somewhere on the CD's packaging.

Parking at the Children's Theatre of Annapolis is free, and there are refreshments available in the lobby during intermission, but you might want to internet search a place to eat beforehand, as there's nothing suitable obviously situated along the way if you're driving in from the North or West.

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET plays through August 7th at Children's Theatre of Annapolis For dates, showtimes and tickets, visit http://infinitytheatre.com/milliondollarquartet/


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From This Author Cybele Pomeroy