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'Million Dollar Quartet' a must-see rock ‘n’ roll tribute

Matt Roche • May 13, 2019 at 11:00 AM

CLEVELAND — Music and history lovers won’t want to miss “Million Dollar Quartet,” the Great Lakes Theater company’s concluding production of the 2018-19 season.

Those in attendance will be treated to solid acting and outstanding singing performances by actors portraying Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. This Tony-winning rock ‘n’ roll tribute combines a captivating storyline — inspired by an actual event — and an incredible score of rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and country hits. It concludes with a mini concert that brings audience members to their feet.

The two-act production, which features a number of Broadway actors and 22 songs, runs through May 26 at Playhouse Square's Hanna Theatre in downtown Cleveland.

“Million Dollar Quartet” chronicles the night of Dec. 4, 1956, when those four now-legendary entertainers found themselves together in a Memphis recording studio.

The man responsible for bringing them together was rock-and-roll pioneer Sam Phillips — the same man credited with launching each singer’s career.

By late 1956, Elvis was no longer with Phillips’ Sun Records label. Cash and Perkins were contemplating a defection from Sun Records themselves. Lewis, meanwhile, was Phillips’ latest up-and-comer acquisition. The evening was supposed to be a recording session for Perkins, and Lewis was brought in to play the piano. Cash, who had been dodging Phillips, showed up. And then Elvis dropped by to see his old friend, Phillips.

Phillips (portrayed by James Ludwig) addresses the audience throughout the show, narrating how he discovered and groomed the four men who would become stars in the infancy of rock ‘n’ roll.

He also relates the evening’s events that resulted in an historic and electrifying rock ‘n’ roll jam session.

The actors capture the essence of the singers they portray, both in terms of appearance and mannerisms as well as vocals and performance.

Some songs in the show are performed by the group, while others are solo numbers. With one exception (about which I am purposely omitting details), all of the music is performed live.

A few one-liners and quips evoke laughter, including Cash, when asked where he had been, telling Phillips, “I’ve been everywhere” — a reference to a song Cash made famous when he covered it in 1996.

The set captures the atmosphere of a former automobile-related business that Phillips converted into his music studio.

Despite being the biggest name of the group and a superstar at the time, Elvis (portrayed by Sean Michael Buckley) conducts himself in a humble and appreciative manner, at times lamenting being tied to RCA. He displays the King’s signature moves, but doesn’t upstage the other three men during combined performances. The last of his four solo numbers is the best — “Hound Dog.”

Elvis’ girlfriend at the time, Dyanne (portrayed by Kristen Beth Williams — the real-life wife of the actor playing Phillips), accompanied him to Sun Studio, where all of the action in this production takes place.  She sings two solo numbers, including “Fever,” and joins in some of the group efforts.

Perkins wrote, performed and rose to fame with “Blue Suede Shoes” but it was Elvis who made the song famous when he covered it on national television three times in 1956. That didn’t sit well with Perkins, who during one of those performances was hospitalized after an auto accident. That song fittingly serves as the show’s opening number, with all four singers performing.

The actor portraying Perkins, James Barry, has performed and music-directed this same production in several theaters across the nation, so he’s well polished in this role. His solo numbers include “Who Do You Love?”

Sky Seals’ portrayal of Cash is spot on. Seals does have a lot of experience channeling the Man in Black, also having performed his same role in several other theater groups’ production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” In addition, Seals is preparing a Johny Cash hip-hop concert tour, which he hopes to bring to bars and prisons across the country. In this show, he sings “Folsom Prison Blues” during the first act and “Walk the Line” in the second.

It’s Gabe Aronson, though, who steals the show as Lewis, providing comic relief throughout both acts and then a stellar rendition of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” as the final number. All of Lewis’ iconic wildness is captured, especially during “Great Balls of Fire.” Even when he’s not featured, Aronson draws attention with his gestures and facial expressions.

The top-notch performance abilities of the lead actors, coupled with the intriguing storyline involving broken promises, secrets and celebrations, makes this a must-see production.

Tickets are available by calling 216-241-6000, by ordering online at www.greatlakestheater.org or by visiting the Playhouse Square Ticket Office.

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