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Goodness! Gracious! Great Balls of Fire! MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET’s remount “brings it” to Shea’s 710 larger audience for 4 more shows

THE BASICS:  MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, a remount of Musicalfare’s 2017 success directed by Randall Kramer, is currently at Shea’s 710 Theatre where it runs for four more shows through March 31, Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2, at 710 Main Street, corner of Tupper. (1-800-745-3000) Full-service bar in well-appointed lounge. Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes without intermission

Note: With the exception of Nick Stevens in the role of Elvis Presley (Steve Copps who played Elvis in 2017 is currently starring in ANGELS IN AMERICA next door at Shea’s Smith Theatre) the cast is identical to the version out at Amherst and my review below copies extensively from my original review.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET delivers early rock’s raw energy in 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: In my earlier review, based on this production at MusicalFare Theatre, I thought that Jerry Lee Lewis (played by Joseph Donohue III) was the central character. Lord knows Donohue can play the piano, and sing, and act and just 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, playing behind his back, 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) and Andrew J. Reimers (Johnny Cash), Donohue is a professional musician and it shows. But now, in 2019, I see this more as an ensemble show, which it always was.

Also, right up front, again let’s note that Brian McMahon (drums) and Dave Siegfried (upright bass) are at the top of their game in this production. I had forgotten how much music can come from just two people. Yes, we’ve heard them before in many shows at MusicalFare, and just as in 2017, whether it’s this material, these arrangements, who they’re with on stage, musical direction from Theresa Quinn, I can’t say, but they were right there all evening.

At Shea’s 710, as at MusicalFare, there is no curtain, so you get to see the set as soon as you enter the theater. For this production, Chris Cavanagh is credited as set designer, and he has done a great job of filling this larger stage, which has been a problem for some over the past several years. It’s still the Sun Records recording studio, but Cavanagh has cleverly added a sort of balcony to our left and an extra door to our right, filling things out. But my memory of the original set by Chris Schenk was more true-to-life, denoting a much grittier, run-down locale, with stains on the wall, and a lot of extra tchotchkes hanging on those drab walls, for a more realistic touch. The current set is great, but the original set was a little work of art. Chris Cavanagh did the original lighting and here at Shea’s 710 too and it was even better.

I must admit that back in 2017 I was mesmerized by Donohue’s portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis and (mea culpa) I didn’t fully appreciate the guitar playing of Brandon Barry as Carl Perkins in the original MusicalFare show. He’s really good, plays well with McMahon and Siegfried and was a more integral part of the show than I remembered. My memory was that he plays a song, gets mad, and storms out a lot. Here he gets mad a lot, but he’s also almost always on stage, adding little musical riffs to the action.

Nor the first time around did I fully appreciate “Dyanne,” introduced as Elvis Presley’s girlfriend, this time more ably played, danced, and sung by Arianne Davidow. Since her 2017 “Dyanne,” Davidow has appeared on multiple WNY stages in both dramatic roles and musical roles, including “Ilse” in SPRING AWAKENING on the big 710 stage, as well as at The Kavinoky Theatre recently as a “Laker Girl” in SPAMALOT and in last season’s THE PRODUCERS where she absolutely killed it as “Ulla,” the blond bombshell. Davidow’s acting chops continue to add a nice touch to an otherwise testosterone-heavy line-up and made the evening more of an ensemble show.

Nick Stevens as Elvis Presley and Andrew J. Reimers as Johnny Cash of course had big shoes to fill as they were portraying artists with long careers who are household names and 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? You give them dramatic roles to play. As we meet the three Sam Phillips veterans – first Perkins, then Cash, then 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. They aren’t on stage just to sing “in the style of.”

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). And when Davidow adds a high soprano line to “Ghost Riders in the Sky” it’s magic.

Personally, I like Jeffrey Coyle (Sam Phillips) better in comedy roles, and I still didn’t find his southern accent convincing, but he does add the level of gravitas and calm necessary when dealing with these multiple personalities. All in all, a fine show, with an ending that can’t be beat.

Lead image: (L-R) Stevens, Donohue, Barry, Davidow, Reimers, McMahon, Coyle Photo credit Arianne Davidow

*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!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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