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Review: ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts

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On December 4, 1956, four young performers found themselves participating in an impromptu jam session in the recording studio of Sun Records in Memphis, TN. Enjoying the early stages of their respective careers, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis’ spontaneous, informal  evening would have gone unrecorded if it weren’t for the quick-thinking of a sound technician, who  hastily began to record them without their knowledge. The resulting record came to be known as the “Million Dollar Quartet,” later adapted into its own musical by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott.  Presented this season by Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, Robert A. K. Gonyo directs this lively production, with musical direction by Garrett Jones.

Jerry Lee Lewis (Gavin Rohrer) Elvis Presley (Kavan Hashemian) Johnny Cash (Stephen Edwards Horst) and Carl Perkins (Todd Meredith) in ‘Million Dollar Quartet.’ Photo courtesy of Riverside Center for The Performing Arts.

Based on original scenic design by Adam Koch, the storefront recording studio of Sun Records is a modest and intimate space, reflecting the unsung reputation of the label itself. Lined with wood paneling, checkered tiles, and a but a few gold records dotting the walls, the stage does a great job illustrating both the era and the lukewarm status of the small label.

Lighting Designer Michael Jarett favors focused spotlighting for this show, and Sound Designer/Engineer Bethany Galyen does a fine job ensuring that the music  and vocals are crisp and clear (a tall order when dealing with live music accompaniments.)  As for costumes, Gaye Law uses subtle clothing that enhance character– faded suspenders for the poor-born, country bred Jerry Lee Lewis, here to prove his talents,  and classic, sophisticated pieces for the suave and esteemed Johnny Cash.

Inspired by last year’s box office record-breaking production of The Buddy Holly Story, Riverside set to give the audience more of what they so greatly enjoyed; live music from the era of early rock ‘n roll. With this, they also brought back Buddy Holly himself– Todd Meredith, who graces the stage in this production as rockabilly singer-songwriter Carl Perkins, best known for his hit song “Blue Suede Shoes.” Now, I’ll bet you’re thinking the same thing I was as I sat in the audience– wasn’t “Blue Suede Shoes” an Elvis Presley song? Turns out it wasn’t, but his cover of Perkins’ song got all the spotlight– an ego-bruising moment that does not go unmentioned between the two.  Aside from lively music, this show has its fair share of personal drama as well.

On this fateful evening, Carl Perkins was scheduled to record some songs with a new performer, Jerry Lee Lewis (man-oh-man– more on him later!). A “homesick” Elvis Presley (Kavan Hashemia) unexpectedly stops by the studio with his girlfriend Dyanne (Teresa Danskey) for a visit. Amazingly, Johnny Cash (Stephen Edwards Horst) later pops in to meet with Sam Philips (Alan Hoffman), the owner of Sun Records and with whom Cash intends to have an uncomfortable, but needed, conversation. The four musicians soon begin talking and singing together, and the rest is history.

This show is chock-full of classic songs from the era, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Hound Dog,” among many more. The singers handle the material spectacularly, particularly Stephen Edwards Horst, whose deep drawl sounds as if it were lifted directly from a Johnny Cash album.

Kavan Hashemia, who admittedly does not look a great deal like Elvis, had the icon’s signature dance moves and warbly vocals down to a science in the number “Long Tall Sally.” Encouraged to participate in the fun, Teresa Danskey’s performance as Dyanne added a very welcomed woman’s touch to the show, and her numbers “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin'” were audience favorites.

Gavin Rohrer as Jerry Lee Lewis. Photo courtesy of Riverside Center for the Performing Arts.

However, there was a clear show-stealer here, and that was Gavin Rohrer’s performance as pianist Jerry Lee Lewis. Excitable, energetic, and a full-on ham, Rohrer’s Lewis reminds us all of that one manic class-clown who just couldn’t keep still. Not one to merely sit on a bench, Rohrer performs almost acrobatic feats as he twists himself around the piano without missing a single beat, shown best in the number “Let’s Have a Party.” His show-off nature demands a lot of attention, particularly to the annoyance of Perkins. The two spend a lot of time engaged in competitive banter, unwilling to acknowledge that their similarities outweigh their differences. Cash’s cool, collected intimidation is the only force that can settle the two, and when he finally shouts at the boys to quit their bickering, the ensuing silence is deafening. While the songs are certainly enjoyable, the onstage dynamics and chemistry of the diverse quartet is even more fascinating.

Riverside Center for the Performing Arts production of Million Dollar Quartet is a fun time all-around, and for fans of early Rock and Roll, this is a must-see. Grab your tickets soon, because word is spreading! 

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30-minutes, including one intermission.

Million Dollar Quartet  plays through March 5, 2017, at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts– 95 Riverside Parkway, in Fredericksburg, VA. For tickets and reservations, call (540) 370-4300.

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