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Great balls of fire! MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET delivers early rock’s raw energy

THE BASICS:  MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, a musical by Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux, directed by Randall Kramer, starring Brandon Barry, Steve Copps, Jeffrey Coyle, Arianne Davidow, Joseph Donohue III, Brian McMahon, Andrew J. Reimers, and Dave Siegfried, opened on April 19th and runs through May 28th, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at both 3:30 & 7:30, and Sundays at 2 at  MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main Street (easier entrance is off Getzville Road) Amherst. Beautiful lounge with full-service bar, coffee, snacks. (839-8540). www.musicalfare.com Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes without intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET is a musical inspired by a one-time recording session at Sam Phillip’s Sun Records in Memphis that brought together on a Tuesday night, December 4, 1956, early rock ‘n’ rollers Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and rockabilly’s Carl Perkins for the first and only time. While it might seem like a “juke box musical” due to a score of over 20 hits including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “That’s Alright Mama,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “I Walk the Line,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” and “Hound Dog”, no artificial plot has been forced on the action. It’s really more of a family reunion drama, where three older “sons” come home to see “dad,” share memories, sing harmony, reveal secrets, and meet “the new kid” who is as raw as they once were.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Let’s just get this out there: this is the new kid, Jerry Lee Lewis’s show (played by Joseph Donohue III). Early in the evening I kept thinking to myself “How can I write the review and be fair to everyone else?” By the end of the evening that was moot. I knew what director Randy Kramer must have known early on, and everyone else in the theater knew. Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire. That boy can play the piano, and sing, and act. Watch him when it’s someone else’s scene. He stays 100% in character. And did I mention how he rocks those 88 keys? Yes, he does all the classic Jerry Lee moves, kicking back the piano bench, standing up while playing, even standing on the piano. But observe his technique, with the wrist suppleness that most classical pianists at Kleinhans would envy, and the elegance to blend right in with everyone else’s numbers. Like fellow actor Brandon Barry (Carl Perkins), Donohue is a musician and plays in two local bands – THE ALBRIGHTS as well as ERIE LACKAWANNA RAILROAD – and I’ll be looking for their next gigs, believe me.

Also, right up front, let’s note that Brian McMahon (drums) and Dave Siegfried (upright bass) are at the top of their game in this production. Yes, we’ve heard them before, but whether it’s this material, these arrangements, who they’re with on stage, opening night energy, musical direction from Theresa Quinn, I can’t say, but they were right there all evening, playing clean as country water.

And the set. At MusicalFare, there is no curtain, so you get to see the sets as soon as you enter the theater, which is good, because sets by Chris Schenk are so beautifully thought out that they are worth admiring on their own. They are like beautiful automobiles. Sure, all cars can get you from here to there, but why not travel in style?

There’s the engineer’s booth behind glass (and where did MusicalFare get those vintage reel-to-reel tape recorders?), the main room of the studio with very cleverly recreated acoustic tiles, and an exterior set complete with ventilation grill and garbage can. Nice touch. So three separate areas on one smallish stage. And nicely lit by Chris Cavanagh.

Steve Copps as Elvis Presley and Andrew J. Reimers as Johnny Cash of course had big shoes to fill but also they were portraying artists with long careers who have spawned generations of impersonators. Admit it, you’ve probably imitated Presley or Cash yourself. So how do you recreate the man and not the legend? Kudos to director Randy Kramer for just having them play it straight. And the on-stage tension gives them a focus, too. As we meet the three Sam Phillips veterans – Cash, Lewis, and Presley – they are suffering from career doubts and anxiety as they grow farther and farther from “Mr. Phillips,” the man who took them in when they were nobodies. So, they have a dramatic role to play. They aren’t on stage just to sing.

Yet when they sing harmony, oh my. A Cappella four-part harmony is really tricky. But these guys make it soar.

Yet when they sing harmony, oh my. A Cappella four-part harmony is really tricky. But these guys make it soar. You may never hear a better “Peace in the Valley” (historical note: throughout his career Presley would always warm up backstage singing Gospel).

The character of “Denise,” introduced as Elvis Presley’s girlfriend is ably played, danced, and sung by Arianne Davidow who adds a nice touch to an otherwise testosterone-heavy line-up. I like Jeffrey Coyle (Sam Phillips) better in comedy roles, and I didn’t find his southern accent convincing, but at the end of the day, we’re there for the songs, so as the kids used to say “it’s all good.”

All in all, a fine show, with an ending that can’t be beat.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

If you enjoy public radio and television in Buffalo, you’ve probably heard or seen Peter Hall asking you for money. He’s the co-host of “Theater Talk” with Anthony Chase (Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO, 88.7 FM) and is the afternoon drive host on Classical 94.5 / WNED where he also produces and hosts “Buffalo Philharmonic Live” (Sundays at 5 p.m. repeating Tuesdays at 11 p.m.) broadcasting BPO performances conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Around town he’s the emcee for Buffalo Chamber Music Society concerts, the Falletta competition, and the Camerata di Sant’Antonio concerts. If you see him at a play or musical with a pen in his hand, he’s probably writing a review for buffalorising.com.

In past lives he has been a Director of Membership for Western New York Public Broadcasting (PBS and NPR), a Director of Marketing for Canisius College, and before that was a Director of Marketing for Fisher-Price. He feels fortunate to have worked for some of the most trusted brands in Western New York.

Growing up in the Amherst school system, music, the arts, literature, outdoor activities, and teaching were important in his family. His grandfather, the painter W.J. Schwanekamp, has works on display at the Burchfield-Penney. His father was a high school English teacher and his mother was a public librarian. In high school, in addition to running track and cross country and being in the ski club, Peter played various instruments in the orchestra, had leading roles in the plays, and was an editor of the high school newspaper. Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty years he has taught undergraduate and graduate classes at Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

Depending on the season, on weekends he can be seen riding with the Niagara Frontier Bicycle Club or teaching downhill skiing at Kissing Bridge.

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