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Reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Let me get right to the point:

What ATI presents for their 2016-17 season opener is far more than a mere production – Million Dollar Quartet is an accomplishment! To call this show energetic would be a severe understatement – to say it is powerfully lively and spirited again lands short of the mark – only by describing it as a kick-ass, red-blooded, high-powered ball of fire would I be closing in on the fact of the matter.

Director DJ Salibury has taken his crew of extremely talented actor/musicians and has lit the fire in their bellies to assembly a juke box musical that has the audience on their feet and, for my generation at least, joyously rolls out the memorable music of our youth.

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A photo taken at the historic gathering of the four rock talents; (from left, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash)

If you don’t know the premise – Sam Phillips was the founder of Sun Records, the company that first recorded such 50’s pop stars as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Phillips was lucky enough on December 4, 1956 to have that foursome gather at his Memphis studio for an occasion that turned into a jam session which was recorded and eventually released years later in 1981 as “The Million Dollar Quartet” with 17 tracks. It was an unprecedented meeting of rock and roll royalty and it serves as the background for the work written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott. The show opened in 2006 at the Seaside Music Theatre in Florida before making it’s way to Chicago in 2008 and Broadway in 2010.

We are shown this historical summit in dramatic terms as the four music giants are all in their early careers and must make decisions about their futures. Don Ferrell imbues Sam Phillips with a wide personality – eager to succeed, direct in his assessment of these talents, masterful in his technique to find the hidden values in the music and in the performers. Ferrell has the most dramatic role and his sharply tuned rendering places it at just the right level, so as to not take any shine off the many fine performances surrounding him.

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The entire cast in performance – from left, foreground: Jeremy Sevelovitz as Carl Perkins, Brandon Alstott as Johnny Cash, Taylor Gray as Jerry Lee Lewis, Adam Tron as Elvis Presley, Betsy Norton as Dyanne, back – on bass: Roy Presley as Jay; on drums: Nathan Shew as Fluke; and in the booth: Don Farrell as Sam Phillips.

Jeremy Sevelovitz takes the role of Carl Perkins, who started his Sun Records run with “Blue Suede Shoes”. Sevelovitz’ outstanding guitar work is a highlight of the show and his portrayal of the slightly edgy performer works well. Brandon Alstott gives his Johnny Cash a deep voiced sincerity that rings true. Playing such a well-known personage is not easy but Alstott skillfully makes the most of Cash’s style in his performances of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line”.

Taylor Gray (who also was Music Director) is top-of-the-line wild and crazy as the energized Jerry Lee Lewis, also managing the man’s youthful naiveté with a fine touch. Gray seems to have mastered Lewis’s mad piano style, slapping the keys with tuneful precision and decorating his performances with an array of gymnastic moves to go along with the signature unfettered vocal style. Adam Tran may have the hardest task of all in these proceedings – impersonating the most iconic figure in rock and roll history, Elvis Presley. Tran does an amazingly adept job – finding Elvis’ confident performing style, as well as his shy aw-shucks mannerisms. His vocals hit the a King-like mark in such recognizable numbers as “That’s All Right” and “Hound Dog”. What I saw here was an actor who transcended impersonation and, impressively, built a portrayal of depth and nuance that had a very truthful quality.

Enhancing these quality performances is Betsy Norton as Elvis’ girlfriend, Dyanne. Ms. Norton contributes two flashy numbers – a hot “Fever” and a spirited “I Hear You Knockin'” – as well as many strong background vocal stints. Kroy Presley adds his musical craftsmanship on the standup bass as Perkin’s brother Jay, while Nathan Shew is the vigorous studio drummer, Fluke. The entire cast of singers provides a constant stream of striking vocal talents in both solos and in close harmonies.

Bottom-line: You may have a hard time finding a more completely satisfying production to attend than ATI’s Million Dollar Quartet. As Mrs. K said as we were exiting the venue – “They really couldn’t have done a better job.” She is correct! Be aware, tickets for this one will go fast – opening weekend is virtually sold out.

Million Dollar Quartet continues at ATI’s Studio Theatre in the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel through October 2nd, 2016. You can get information about the schedule and tickets by calling 317.843.3800 or by logging onto http://www.atistage.org .

ADDENDUM: Acting on the principle that it is never too late to heap praise, I felt that in my zeal for the work of the performers and my attempt to meet my personal deadline I had neglected noting a very vital part of this incredible production.

I am referring to the fantastic effects of the set design, lighting, sound and costumes that did not just happen, but were the work of some behind the scenes visionaries who did as noteworthy a job as anyone who appeared on stage. P. Bernard Killian’s set design takes one to the scene of the historic meeting. The angled setting, as well as the complete recording booth, certainly act as a solid and realistic basis for telling this story. Likewise, Donna Jacobi’s costumes are period perfect. Jonathan Parke adds factors to the singers’ voices that enhance and are very close to what we heard on the original platters back then. And Marciel Irene Greene’s dynamic lighting effects add to the pulse and power of the music and the storytelling. Without these designers’ contributions, I dare say this show would have lacked many of it’s intensities.

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