note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
Ogunquit Playhouse personnel takes great pride in claiming their productions are basically homegrown, incorporating their own brand of excellence. When they’re not using Broadway set or costumes, the acclaimed Maine theater creates original designer shows, and audiences love it.
Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s jukebox musical, “Million Dollar Quartet,” currently appearing through Sept. 19, is a prime example. Instead of performing the musical as it was written - a rollicking, rip-roaring, 90-minute, one act rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza - Ogunquit organizers divided the play into two acts, letting theatergoers stand up in between, mingle, and do a whole lot of shaking while humming their favorite tunes.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is based on an actual snapshot in time, that occurred Dec. 4, 1956, among Sun Records’ greatest finds: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. Portraying Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, Jason Loughlin narrates that historic night, when the four great rock ‘n’ rollers participated in a spontaneous jam session in Phillips’ 706 Union St., Memphis landmark, storefront recording studio-business. Later in the show, Ogunquit authenticates the event with a large, sepia-toned photo of the four, sitting around a piano.
At that time, rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t just a new musical genre fad. It was the start of a new era that broke barriers, crossing musical, societal, political and religious lines, which is related through individual flashbacks and dialogue references.
Escott and Mutrix have built a weak story line to thread the “plot” together, but nobody cares about that. Theatergoers obviously are there for the music, letting the good times rock and roll through their treasured memories.
Pretty Bligh Voth portraying Elvis’ fictitious, sexy singer girlfriend, Dyanne, fills in the narration with Phillips during conversations. She also delivers a steamy rendition of “Fever”.
Phillips intends to extend Cash’s contract. He just signed newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s trying to resurrect Carl Perkins‘ flagging career, and RCA, for whom Elvis records, wants to buy Sam’s studio and have him come to New York, to work for them.
The story flashes back to each performer’s start, their relationship to Phillips, and traces their meteoric rise to fame.
Their loyalty to Phillips is disappointing. Save Lewis, who’s just starting out, the others have their own plans.
The rock icons also pay tribute to their Southern roots with million-dollar renditions of gospel numbers, “Peace in the Valley” and “Down By The Riverside”.
This is my second time seeing “Million Dollar Quartet,” which I enjoyed more than the the national touring company’s production at Boston’s Colonial Theatre, two years ago.
Adam Koch has added realistic elements to original Broadway set designer Derek McLane’s stage; while Richard Latta’s blazing lights and Kevin Heard’s sounds restore the pulse of the time.
Interestingly, performer Scott Moreau of Litchfield, Maine, portrayed Johnny Cash in both productions. It’s easy to see why. No, he doesn’t look like Cash, but he has his rumbly, deep voice, intonation, silent demeanor, and musicianship. When Moreau sings and strums his guitar (gee-tar, in countryspeak), especially in songs “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” “Sixteen Tons,” and “[Ghost] Riders in the Sky,” he’s mesmerizing. However, Moreau’s portrayal of the marvelous Man in Black is stiff, lacking Cash’s soulful reticence.
In contrast, rambunctious actor Nat Zegree of Kalamazoo, Mich., is irrepressible, an infectious bundle of talent and energy as wise guy Jerry Lee Lewis. In his introductory song, “Real Wild Child,” Zegree is flippant, ambitious, and funny, as he startlingly, pounds those ivories. He ignites the stage with “Great Balls of Fire,” and he leads the company into wild pandemonium in, “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On”.
Zegree also provides most of the comedy, as only the irreverent Jerry Lee Lewis could do.
Maybe Carl Perkins’ career didn’t zoom on the charts beyond his hit, “Blue Suede Shoes,” but in Robert Britton Lyons’ portrayal, he reveals Perkins’ talent, even-keeled temperament and simmering resentment toward Elvis for “stealing” his song and performing it on the famous Ed Sullivan TV variety program.
Lyons also is the show’s music director.
And Elvis? The King? The gyrating, sexy man from Memphis who wooed and deserted the most beautiful women alive? Granted, Jacob Rowley sounds like Elvis when he sings. He moves like Elvis, but his personality is wooden. We wait for him to cut loose, and he complies, with “Long Tall Sally” and “Hound Dog,” but Rowley needs some Memphis magic to energize his role.
Backing up the Big Four are talented bassist Sam Weber, portraying Perkins’ brother, Jay, and drummer David Sonneborn as Fluke.
The show ends glowingly, with the four garbed in jewel-hued, glittery jackets, shaking, rattlin’ and rollin’ to a jiving finale.
BOX INFO: Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s award-winning musical, appearing through Sept. 19 at Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main St., Route 1N, Ogunquit, Maine. Tickets start at $44. For performances, tickets and/or more information, call 207-646-5511 or visit www.ogunquitplayhouse.org.