By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
There is a point midway during the current production of Million Dollar Quartet at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts when the major singing members of the cast join their voices together in the gospel favorite “Down By the Riverside” with only a simple guitar accompaniment. The melding of voices emulating early rock and roll and country heroes Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley is never better or more expressive than it is in this simple moment as they harmonize and enrich each other’s well-crafted stage personae.
In his Rivertown directorial debut, Michael McKelvey strikes absolute gold with a cast that is almost as perfect were the real-life characters to magically been summoned back from the past. While keeping their own voices, the actors emulate the essence of these stars of yesteryear with uncanny and startling results.
Gregg Hammer, who plays Johnny Cash, apes the unique pattern of speech and body mannerisms “The Man in Black” possessed. It’s little wonder why his part is so polished. It turns out Hammer portrayed Cash during the national tour of the Broadway show, and his considerable experience leads a cast of extremely talented players in Rivertown’s cast. Like Hammer, Luke Linsteadt has also played Elvis Presley in a previous iteration of Million Dollar Quartet and his pelvic gyrations are dead on accurate in his portrayal along with classic early Elvis sneer and oozing charm and charisma.
As Jerry Lee Lewis, Marc Fouchi bangs out the keys on the piano just like the real phenom from Ferriday, Louisiana. His playing is not merely good, it is truly great and his voice and wild mannerisms are as good as his fellow actors with considerably more experience in their roles.
Sean Riley plays rockabilly artist Carl Perkins, a figure who is seen as important, but not pivotal like Cash was to country and Presley was to rock and roll. His guitar play is the glue that keeps all the other instrumentation together in all the various songs that run from gospel to country and classic rock and roll.
In a non-singing role, Ken Goode, who can more than hold his own as a singer, is the central narrator figure of Sam Phillips, the proprietor of Sun Records and the man who put all of these stars on the map. Goode plays his role thoughtfully and with a great deal of humanity. Phillips is seen as a tragic prophet, who helped shape the sound America was waiting for, but he is not without his foibles. It’s because of Phillips that this late night session occurred on December 4, 1956: the first and only time they all played together.
In her first appearance on the Rivertown Theaters stage, Emily Gyan, an extremely attractive and talented redhead, plays Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne. Gyan’s considerable experience as a model, a leading Victory Belle and in other recent shows at BB’s Stage Door Canteen at the National World War II Museum show off her considerable skills that command attention. Her scintillating version of “Fever” in the first half of the show is both sultry and sexy and her eye-dropping rendition of New Orleans’ Smiley Lewis’ own “I Hear You Knockin'” brings joy to her local audience. As the only representative of the fairer sex, her character is also used as a device in the book by Collin Escott and Floyd Mutrux to move the action along between Presley and Phillips as well as with the other cast members on smoke breaks outside of the studio.
What Million Dollar Quartet does is take advantage of a series of historically accurate selections that could have been played by Presley and company on that cold December night in Memphis. While selections like “Hound Dog,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Sixteen Tons” and “See Ya Later Alligator” were already recorded by 1956, others by Jerry Lee Lewis had yet to be recorded or released. But poetic license aside, it makes for a more exciting and enthralling 90-minutes of theatrical music.
In short, Million Dollar Quartet has multi-million dollar selling, chart-topping hits and no one is complaining that it might not have actually happened as it plays out night after night or matinee after matinee on stage. The phrase “inspired by the electrifying true story” is in a sense a self-admitted truth in advertising policy.
The cast is rounded out by Trey Tycer as drummer Fluke and Sam Dingle as Perkins’ (older) Brother Jay. Both of them are on stage throughout the entire performance and are essential members of the rhythm section for support of most of the musical selections heard and seen on stage. The last four numbers heard are showcase pieces for the entire group as Elvis, Cash, Perkins and Lewis showcase their immense talents and stage presence.
McKelvey’s considerable experience mounting shows in Austin and his credentials as the artistic director of Summer Lyric Theater at Tulane as well as his own local company, DoctorMistuh Productions, is a welcome addition to the Rivertown Theaters company. His fresh take on this recent Broadway hit is every bit as good, if not slightly better than the national tour that swung through New Orleans a few years back.
While the professional lighting design by Melissa Martinez might have been a little less of an offering than the national tour had with its many resources, her superb work literally shines throughout the performance. With a show like this, less is actually more and it is top flight work. The set design by Eric Porter and executed with Derek Blanco is tightly constructed and is extremely effective in giving the impression of an actual old-time recording studio. Also quite impressive is the perfectly-balanced sound design executed by Theo Fogleman with special effects attributed to Fouchi.
Last year, Rivertown Theaters kicked off the year with an astounding production of Billy Elliot. The year before it was the award-winning production of The Will Rogers Follies that starred Fouchi. It would seem they once again are keeping the bar raised very high to set the standard for musical theater work in the region for the forthcoming year.
Million Dollar Quartet continues with shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and matinees on Sunday at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor Street in Kenner, through January 28. For ticket information call, 504-461-9475 or click here for online tickets.