Chicago Theatre Review
A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On!
Million Dollar Quartet – Paramount Theatre
A slice of actual rock and roll history has been preserved, fictionalized and brought to life in Paramount Theatre’s brilliant seventh season opener. This joyful and infectiously likable show is a trip down memory lane, for many theatergoers. It’s chock full of nearly two dozen popular early rock and country-western hits. Based on an actual, previously little-known event from the archives of recording history, Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott created this little jukebox musical that has, since its 2006 Florida premier, taken on a whole life of its own.
The event depicted took place on the evening of December 4, 1956, at Memphis, Tennessee’s Sun Records, a tiny, two-person operation that recorded rock and roll records. The studio was owned by pioneer producer, Sam Phillips. Based upon a famous photograph that he snapped the night Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis all happened to drop by his little studio, Phillips called this reunion of his talented discoveries the Million Dollar Quartet.
Phillips is responsible for launching the careers of these four music legends, among many others. That night he learned that, after selling Elvis’ contract to a bigger recording label, strictly to pay off his delinquent debts and keep his studio operating, the King is now interested in returning to Phillips’ care and guidance. After all, Sam Phillips was the man who originally discovered, encouraged and nurtured Presley’s signature rock and roll sound. That night, Sam was also disappointed to learn that both Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins were leaving his flock, having signed on with the higher-paying Columbia Records. Additionally, Phillips is just getting to know his new, wildly talented, yet unpredictable discovery, Jerry Lee Lewis; and on this evening he also meets another gifted singer named Dyanne, Elvis’ current girlfriend. Throughout the evening’s jam session, music is played, feelings are expressed and reconciliation evolves into deeply caring camaraderie.
Artistic Director Jim Corti has done it once again. He continues his six year run of highly polished, Jeff Award-winning Broadway quality shows that present the finest area talent performing at the top of their game. In addition, Corti’s shows are always backed by a topnotch support team of unseen theatrical artists, as well. This version of the legendary musical lives up to every expectation of this warmhearted show. It not only sizzles with musical excitement and overflows with old-fashioned humor, but, under Corti’s wise direction, it’s not afraid to show its heart.
The production is musically directed with care and precision by Kory Danielson, featuring terrific performances by onstage musicians Zach Lentino on bass, as brother Jay Perkins, and Scott Simon on percussion, as Fluke. Every actor in this production has to be, and is, a dynamic, multitalented triple-threat. Each of the characters, with the exception of Sam Phillips, is not only required to be portrayed by a strong actor and singer, performing in the style of the legendary artist, but he must also be able to master his character’s musical instrument of choice.
Adam Wesley Brown, whose resume ranges from Chicago Shakespeare to Broadway musicals, is a strong and likable Carl Perkins. His warm smile and relaxed vocal style is homey and comforting, but his superb skill on the electric guitar is dexterous and almost demonic in energy. Brown rocks the house with Perkins’ signature hit, “Blue Suede Shoes,” along with “Matchbox,” “Who Do You Love?” and, of course, “See You Later Alligator.”
Bill Scott Sheets, as the legendary Man in Black, captures all of Johnny Cash’s charm and gravitas. He’s the quintessential good ol’ boy and easygoing singer. Sheets skillfully accompanies himself on the acoustic guitar while easily hitting all the deep, baritone notes in classics like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Sixteen Tons” and “I Walk the Line.” But Mr. Sheets’ most haunting performance is his eleventh hour “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” a song that evokes fond memories of growing up in the 50’s in front of the radio.
As Elvis Presley, the undisputed King of Rock and Roll, Kavan Hashemian is simply sensational. His strong vocals, musical talent, good looks and loose-jointed physicality make him a natural to play this charismatic, iconic role. And it’s only right, since the actor/singer/musician has been portraying Elvis in his own tribute to the singer since he was a child. His sexy grin and gyrating hips add just the right amount of spice to numbers like “Memories Are Made of This,” “That’s Alright, Mama” and, of course, “Hound Dog.” It’s clear to see why this young actor was voted the Best Rock-N-Roll Elvis in a BBC television competition.
This entire production is a well-balanced assemblage of appealing, truly gifted young performers. However, the standout of the evening is young Gavin Rohrer as Jerry Lee Lewis. His talent and energy are simply off the charts. When he sings, Rohrer sounds exactly like the “Wild One.” As the pioneer of rockabilly music, one of the earliest forms of rock and roll, this young actor/singer/musician is the equivalent of a humanized energy drink. He bops and bounds all over the stage, but, in the end, is primarily connected to his keyboard. Rohrer’s talent at the upright is not only masterful and manic but his flexible, athletic prowess enable him to tickle the ivories forward, backward, upside down and every which way. Lovably brash, Mr. Rohrer’s Jerry Lee Lewis not only accompanies everyone else on the piano, but he delights the audience with his own songs, like “Great Balls of Fire” and, the show’s much-demanded encore, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
As Elvis Presley’s current girlfriend, Chicago favorite Courtney Mack easily holds her own on this testosterone-filled stage of performers. As she did in local productions of “Heathers” and “Sideshow,” Ms. Mack dazzles with her sultry version of “Fever;” then later lights up the stage with a brassy R&B classic,“I Hear You Knockin,” accompanied by Rohrer’s Fats Domino-inspired piano triplets.
We’re introduced to this historic moment in time by Nicholas Harazin, as Sam Phillips. While he doesn’t perform any solos (contributing as a backup singer), this dynamic actor is our tour guide and narrator. This is, after all, his story. Phillips is the main character who keeps the two hour evening moving at a comfortable, but lickety-split pace, introducing and providing little-known facts about his boys, while popping in and out of the story, at will. Seen on stages all over the country, as well as at local theatres, like Steppenwolf and Chicago Shakespeare, Mr. Harazin (who bears a striking resemblance to the real Sam Phillips) makes his auspicious Paramount debut with this production.
Kevin Depinet’s realistic scenic design is a faithfully detailed reconstruction of the actual Sun Records Studio, at 706 Union Avenue, in Memphis. Even the gorgeous sunset sky above, as well as the surprise concert lighting, all courtesy of Jesse Klug’s artistry, seem natural and authentic. Adding to the total look of this production are period perfect costumes, created by Sally Dolembo, and recognizable hair, wig and makeups, brought to light by designer Katie Cordts.
This production marks a prodigious beginning to Paramount’s seventh season. Jim Corti’s polished production, with his attention to detail, is a musical that, although it began elsewhere, grew and took form in Chicago. Beginning at the Goodman Theatre, back in 2008, it then transferred, due to popular demand, to the Apollo Theatre on Lincoln Avenue, where it broke all attendance records. When it opened on Broadway in 2010 it was nominated for three Tony Awards, winning for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. The show then went on to play Off Broadway the following year, and then began a current-running National Tour. Here is one more tribute to the show’s popularity, as well as serving as a hallmark of Paramount’s critically acclaimed, audience supported artistry. With such a fine, first-rate show, it portends nothing but greatness for a new season of musicals in the months to follow. As Jerry Lee Lewis and the company remind us, this entertaining evening’s filled with a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On!”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 16-October 29 by Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 630-896-6666 or by going to www.paramountaurora.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.