BWW Review: The Revolution of Rock n' Roll: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Ignites MSMT Stage

BWW Review: The Revolution of Rock n' Roll: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Ignites MSMT Stage

When Rock n' Roll burst onto the scene in the late 1950s, it brought with it a veritable revolution in American popular music. Seen by some as "the Devil's music," by others as a passing fad, this vibrant, electric sound proved itself a lasting phenomenon. So perhaps it is fitting that more than sixty years later a musical celebrating four of the greatest legends of early rock should open Maine State Music Theatre's 60th anniversary season. And what an opening this is!

Million Dollar Quartet explodes onto the Pickard stage with the energy of a mega concert and the intensity of a high-stakes drama. It is a tale that is at once about the music itself and the men who made it, about dreams and determination, about stumbling and success. In a dazzling production directed by Hunter Foster, MSMT scores the perfect kickoff to its own milestone season.

Million Dollar Quartet premiered on Broadway in 2010 in a one-act version that has since been fleshed out into two. It chronicles the legendary recording session on December 4, 1956, at Sun Records in Memphis where Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis came together to make an impromptu recording that remains the stuff of history. The jukebox musical with an original book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott dramatizes this jam session and the tensions and artistic conflicts gripping these musicians. Vignettes from the past are cleverly interwoven with the present recording session, presided over by Sam Phillips, the visionary producer who shaped Rock n' Roll history, and who serves as both narrator and catalytic actor in the drama.

Director Hunter Foster, a veteran of twelve productions of the show in addition to having himself played Phillips on Broadway, demonstrates an intimate and extensive knowledge of the work, at the same time that he continues to keep it fresh and find new subtleties and nuances. Among Foster's strengths are his ability to focus on the dramatic core of the characters and their stories and not let these be overwhelmed by the show stopping musical numbers, his talent for extracting a genuineness and truthfulness from his actors, and his skill at creating a cohesive ensemble who all play effortlessly off each other. Moreover, Foster knows how to pace the work, keeping it taut, seamless, and ever building to the final amazing musical finale.

Music Director James Barry, who also plays Carl Perkins, invests the show with a dynamism that is especially compelling in the intimate space of the Pickard, where - by the end of the evening - the audience feels itself a part of the Sun Records reunion.

BWW Review: The Revolution of Rock n' Roll: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Ignites MSMT StageThe set designed by William James Mohney (Props Katelin Walsko) has a beautifully detailed 50s feeling with dark wood, acoustic panels and period sound equipment. Matthew DeMascolo's lighting design is rich and complex, using showy moving spotlights, colorful effects and patterns for the song sequences and readily bathing the stage in a warm haze of nostalgia that grows in the second act. Shannon Slaton takes her cure from the original sound designer Jacob Mishler and creates a balance that pulses with a genuine rock concert feel, while still being appropriate to the theatre's confines. Travis M. Grant's costumes are spot on - relying on historical images for most of the show, and then stepping out to dazzle with a tasteful array of sequins, embroidery and sparkles in the final jam session. Stage Manager Mark Johnson and team steer the ship with customary expertise.

The cast of triple threat musical performers are also staggeringly accomplished musicians. So completely does each walk in the shoes of his character that the audience often feels chills, such as in the applause-winning moment when Scott Moreau steps to the microphone and says in a resonant bass-baritone, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." Together they create the perfect illusion of this foursome and give it inner truth.

Ari McKay Wilford makes an appealing young Elvis, capturing the physical hallmarks of Presley including the swiveling hips, curled lip, dynamo gestures, unmistakable sensuality, and raw energy. At the same time he brings a subtler sense of vulnerability and boyishness to the King at this stage in his life. Scott Moreau incarnates the spirit and soul of the "man in black," using his ebony-rich, resonant baritone with consummate vocal style. Moreover, he makes the most of the character's dramatic moments, and gives the audience a Johnny Cash that is sympathetic despite his hurtful decision at the close of the play. James Barry brings to Carl Perkins a snarky, hard-knocks presence, a driving vocalism, and the ability to play the guitar, as Phillips describes him, "as if he is firing bullets." His final scene where he, too, confronts Phillips with his hurt is delivered with moving intensity. Brandyn Day plays the incorrigible Jerry Lee Lewis with a combination of boyish innocence and earthiness, and he dashes off the requisite pianistic virtuoso fireworks with disarming charm.

The four other players not part of the legendary quartet are equally excellent. Brittany Danielle makes a sexy and winning Dyanne who proves her vocal metal in belting out her two solo numbers. Zach Cossman on drums and Eric Scott Anthony on bass have their moments to shine instrumentally and also contribute to the overall tapestry of the story. Anchoring both the narrative and the dramatic heart of the story is Jason Loughlin's fully drawn portrait of Sam Phillips, the "father of Rock n' Roll," the man to whom Presley, Perkins, Cash, and Lewis owed so much in their careers. Loughlin captures Phillips' chutzpah as well as his softer side, his vision and pioneering spirit, his vulnerability and his perseverance, and the final confrontation scene and reconciliation are truly moving.

By the time Million Dollar Quartet reaches its concluding dramatic moments, the audience is completely invested in this story and these characters. Not only are these personages of memory, but they have become real human beings in the moment. The final encore concert blows the audience away like a cyclone. Stomping, cheering, clapping, the collective experience is one of celebration, exuberance, and untrammeled joy. And, naturally, that make Million Dollar Quartet the perfect opener for a milestone season such as this one.

But the parallels between the show and MSMT's own anniversary celebration seem uncannily deeper. Million Dollar Quartet pays tribute to a legendary assemblage in 1956 of musicians and their producer who, despite the naysayers, clung to a vision, originality and pioneering spirit that would change the definition of popular music and leave a lasting, revolutionary legacy. Similarly, in 1959 MSMT's founder Victoria Crandall also had an extraordinary dream, and today sixty years later under the leadership of Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark and Managing Director Stephanie Dupal, and nurtured by so many along the way, that dream has grown into a magnificent reality. Like Rock n' Roll MSMT is bold, authentic, and here to stay!

Photographs courtesy of MSMT, Kinectiv photographer

Million Dollar Quartet runs at the Pickard Theater in Brunswick from June 6 -23, 2018 207-725-8769 or msmt.org

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

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