Friday, June 8, 2018

A jam session for the ages: ATI brings back its 'Million Dollar Quartet'

The company of 'Million Dollar Quartet' belts out the finale.
I told this story over four years ago in a post detailing my overall aversion to rock music. But it may be more pertinent here because it's relevant to my first exposure to "Million Dollar Quartet" as presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana in an encore run. The rocking out will continue through June 17 in the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theater.

It's about "Blue Suede Shoes," the beloved rock 'n' roll song that launches the show, which is based on a one-time Memphis gathering of Sun Studios' early stars in December 1956.

The song was passed on to Elvis Presley and became part of his burgeoning stardom, overshadowing the man who wrote it, Carl Perkins. That stroke of fate is one of "Million Dollar Quartet"'s dramatic conflicts, as Perkins reminds his boss, Sam Phillips, of the slight.  He's defending himself and his rhythm section for their departure from the Sun label at a time when Johnny Cash has also found greener pastures, and Phillips is devastated.

At a family reunion in Virginia about that time, a second cousin of mine brought out some of his favorite 45s, including "Blue Suede Shoes." He insisted that Perkins was the performer, pointing out his name in parentheses on the label right under the title; Presley's name appeared under that. For some reason, I couldn't convince him that the mention of Perkins was positioned parenthetically to indicate the songwriter, not the singer. We bet a quarter on it, and agreed to abide by his father's judgment. My victory the next day was bittersweet because, as my cousin told me, his dad had said he should pay up because I was a guest. Southern hospitality came out on top.

I've spared myself research on the history of Sun Records and the jam session that brought together Presley, Perkins, Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis partly because I prefer to process the legend, and the show deserves to be judged as drama, not cabaret or musical revue. So I don't really know how much Perkins really resented Presley's success with "Blue Suede Shoes," but it makes for something ATI patrons can sink their teeth into besides the show's dazzling hit parade.

Similarly, how obstreperous the newcomer Lewis was at this meeting makes for good theatrical fodder, particularly the hostility the wild young pianist stirred in Perkins.  These conflicts drive the show, which also pitches its dramatic tent on the energy and ambitions of the impresario Phillips, who is played with peppery intensity by ATI co-founder Don Farrell.

Directed and choreographed by DJ Salisbury, ATI's "Million Dollar Quartet" has an adept, well-chosen cast returning to the stage for their zesty impersonations: Brandon Alstott is Johnny Cash; Sean Riley, Carl Perkins; Gavin Rohrer is Lewis; Adam Tran, Elvis. Betsy Norton appears as Elvis' girlfriend Dyanne, getting showcases that  cover the fervid-to-fiery spectrum, "Fever" and "I Hear You Knockin'."

The production's music is pitched at a present-day volume, and the front-and-center performances are calculated to pin your ears back as they recall the birth of rock 'n' roll out of rhythm-and-blues and rockabilly roots. After the story is out of the way, there's a set of glitzy encores spotlighting each of the stars: Presley's "Hound Dog," Cash's "Ghost Riders in the Sky," Perkins' "See You Later Alligator," and, finally, a stand-up-and-wiggle audience-participation version of Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."

For contrast, there were songs derived from the musicians' backgrounds and individual affinities: a nice a cappella version of "Peace in the Valley," an upbeat, similarly well-harmonized "Down by the Riverside," and Elvis' solo in "Memories Are Made of This."  A dismissive reference is made to Elvis' "Love Me Tender," which would have been natural for performance in context, since the break-out star had sung it on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in September 1956 and issued his hit record of it later that month. (That's one of the few facts I looked up online for this post.) I missed this signature setting of the old Civil War song "Aura Lea."

But again, "Million Dollar Quartet" is not a musical revue, and it makes sense  for creators Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux to have made song choices that suited the flow of their piece and the story they wanted to tell. Unfortunately, Thursday night's audience seemed inclined to take in the show as a hit parade, as there was considerable traffic into and out of the seats. Granted, the show lasts two hours without intermission, and the reason for the temporary departures can be safely inferred. But they certainly marred the illusion that a story, with comical elements threaded amid the pathos, was being set before us, not just a musical nostalgia trip.