Arts & Culture

Great balls of fire! ISF’s ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ gets ‘em dancing

Elvis Presley (Sean Michael Buckley) takes center stage in Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet,” a musical account of a magical night in 1956 when four of the greatest rockers of that era got together.
Elvis Presley (Sean Michael Buckley) takes center stage in Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet,” a musical account of a magical night in 1956 when four of the greatest rockers of that era got together. kjones@idahostatesman.com

Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s September show is definitely one you don’t want to miss.

Filled with energetic performances and toe-tappin’ classic rock, country and gospel hits, “Million Dollar Quartet” is a powerhouse jukebox musical that on opening night even had a jaded theater reviewer up and dancing by the end.

The show opened Sept. 7 to a packed house. Chairs and lawn seating during the run may be hard to come by, but there are plenty of tickets available on the hillside. Don’t worry about being able to hear or see. This show’s performance energy goes to the treetops.

The Broadway musical by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux offers a fictional account of a historic recording session at legendary record producer Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. One night in 1956 brought together Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis for an impromptu session when each was at the precipice of their epic careers.

(If you doubt it’s true, wait until the third act, when an image from the original night pops up on the large screen above the set.)

There’s plenty of tension in the room as they strut their musical prowess and struggle with the decision to go with bigger labels or stay with Phillips. The show suggests that Phillips slyly orchestrated the event to seal a new contract with Cash, and he wants the artists to dance with the one that brought them. He’s also considering a buyout of his Sun Records by RCA, the label he sold Presley’s contract to the year before.

What really makes this show extraordinary is that theses actors are all quadruple threats. Each presents well-drawn characters of these icons on the cusp of what will be unimaginable success (at least for three of them), and they sing, they dance and they play — I mean really play — their instruments.

From the opening “Blue Suede Shoes” (actually penned by Perkins) to the closing Lewis hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and everything in between, the songs all stand the test of time.

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Record producer Sam Phillips (James Ludwig) in Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

Directed by Hunter Foster and staged by associate director Greg Santos, the show pivots around Phillips’ ambition. James Ludwig plays the ego-driven visionary who helped give birth to the rock era by promoting the early careers of these musical greats — and he’s not shy about it. (He later would shepherd the careers of Roy Orbison and Howlin’ Wolf.) Ludwig’s Phillips is pushy, self-centered and supremely talented, yet tinged with heartache and a fatherly quality when it comes to “his boys.” Vignettes show how he found these diamonds in the rough, and found something in them no one else had seen.

Kurt Jenkins plays singer, songwriter and guitarist Perkins, who personified the rockabilly sound in the 1950s. Jenkins’ Perkins is fighting for his place in the room as the talent pool swells. He hasn’t had a hit in awhile, and his “Matchbox” might be it. And man, can he play guitar.

Sky Seals as Johnny Cash really brings the bass (vocals) for his character, shining on Cash classics “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” He brings a brooding, stoic quality as Cash, who deeply wants to perform a gospel album — against Phillips’ wishes — as thanks for his success.

In fact, a large part of the original recording jam session featured gospel hymns that they all grew up singing.

A 21-year-old Presley enters full of swagger but seeking comfort from his former mentor. Sean Michael Buckley captures both Presley’s “aw-shucks” country sweetness and his trepidation at becoming famous. His companion Dyanne (Kristen Beth Williams), a singer he met in Hollywood, adds to the proceedings with a sultry rendition of “Fever.”

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Gabe Aronson gives an phenomenally physical performance as Jerry Lee Lewis in Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s “Million Dollar Quartet.” Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

But the performance of the show belongs to Gabe Aronson as Jerry Lee Lewis, the brash, energetic pianist known as “The Killer.” Aronson’s astounding energy dominates the stage as he displays a phenomenal skill at the piano and the physical acrobatics Lewis was known for, including an impressive back bend to the floor as his hands stay on the keys, and other theatrics.

All the while, Lewis is eager to impress, but at every turn ends up offending everyone with his brashness and flamboyant musical skills.

These performances aren’t imitations but rather thoughtfully drawn characters by actors who have deep musical skills. The musical numbers are anchored by bassist Jonathan Brown as Perkins’ brother, Jay, and Jonathan Brown as drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland.

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The cast of “Million Dollar Quartet” rocks out in the final songs of Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s production of the musical about an historic night in rock-n-roll history. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

Adam Koch’s layered set design (rendered by associate designer Steve Royal) evokes the grittiness of the original Sun, which inhabited a former garage, strewn with Christmas lights and worn paneling. It is warmed under Kirk Bookman’s lighting, which becomes especially vibrant after sundown.

Costumer Lauren T. Roark perfectly captures the era and each performer’s style. Bart Fastbender’s sound design makes the whole thing sing.

This show offers a great moment to muse about the history of rock and how this moment was a turning point. What if Cash and Perkins stayed with Sun Records? What if Phillips sold it to RCA to work with Presley again? What if Lewis hadn’t married his 13-year-old cousin and destroyed his career?

That being said, these four luminaries influenced and changed music around the world, and still have an impact today. This is definitely a show for all ages.

Note

The rain policy for this show is strict. Because there are electric and acoustic musical instruments on stage, any hint of rain will stop the show. They will wait to see what the weather does but will not go on even in a drizzle.

Bring your dancing shoes.

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Go see it

“Million Dollar Quartet,” 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 29. No Greenshow. Tickets: $35-$52 weekends, $28-$42 weekdays at IdahoShakespeare.org or IdahoShakespeare.org and 208-336-9221.

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