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Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Directed by by Hunter Foster
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 17, 2017

Sky Seals, Dominique Scott, John Michael Presney, Ryah Nixon, Ari McKay Wilford
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Million Dollar Quartet is certainly a crowd-pleaser.  With a catalog of classic music from the early days of rock n’ roll, played and sung live on stage and with a great deal of energy and respect for the material, a show like this is sure to please. The closing show of the Rep’s 50th season, this slightly plotted, music-heavy show is, for the most part, an entertaining success, even though it does have its problems, especially in casting.

The show is inspired by an actual event–a historic day in 1956 when four musical legends–Elvis Presley (Ari McKay Wilford), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals), Carl Perkins (John Michael Presney), and Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott) all gathered for an impromptu jam session at the Sun Records studios in Memphis. The events here are largely embellished, creating a fictional girlfriend for Elvis named Dyanne (Ryah Nixon) who is a singer and can join in on the music, and focusing a lot of its attention on Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips (James Ludwig), who is facing a dilemma when he’s offered a chance to sell his company and join Elvis at his new record company, RCA. There’s a big element of “history lesson” to this show as well, telling us a lot about the backgrounds about the various artists. It’s also a lesson in competing egos, as the talented musicians jockey for favor and boast about their success. This gives us a look at future legends still fairly early in their careers, and in the case of Jerry Lee Lewis, at the very beginning of his. For the most part, though, it’s more jam session than story, with the performers playing various hits such as “Blue Suede Shoes”, “I Walk the Line”, “Great Balls of Fire”, and more. There’s even a nod to the late, great Chuck Berry with a performance of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”, as well as a foray into Gospel music with “Down By the Riverside”, “I Shall Not Be Moved”, and “Peace In the Valley.”

The music here is really the star, with all the musicians playing their own instruments and performing the songs well. There are some excellent musical moments and some stand-out performances, especially from the energetic, charismatic Scott as Lewis, and by Presney as Perkins, who displays an impressive talent on the guitar. There are also strong performances from Ludwig as Sam Phillips and Nixon as Dyanne, who has strong singing moments with “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin'”. There’s also strong musical support from Eric Scott Anthony, as Carl Perkins’ brother Jay, on bass, and by Zach Cossman as drummer Fluke. The problematic casting comes in the form of Seals and McKay. Try as he might, the pleasant-voiced Wilford just doesn’t quite convince as Elvis, lacking  in the sheer sense of charisma and magnetism, and although Seals gives a strong acting performance as Cash, his voice isn’t low enough or strong enough to carry off Cash’s classic songs, especially “I Walk the Line” in which Seals noticeably strains to the degree that it affects his overall credibility. Still, everyone seems to be having a great time here, and the group singing sessions are particularly strong.

Technically, the show is simply and effectively staged. There isn’t a need for an elaborate set, as it all takes place in the Sun Records studio, although that studio is vividly realized by set designer Adam Koch, whose two-level set provides the ideal backdrop for the performances. Costume designer Lauren T. Roark has outfitted the performers well, in colorful period-specific costumes that suit the various performers well. There’s also excellent lighting by Kirk Boookman and sound by Bart Fasbender, highlighting the clarity, energy, and sheer musicality of the performance.

This is a fun show, and even though it isn’t perfect, it entertains. Toward the end of the production, a photo and recording of the real legendary performers is shown, and it does serve as something of an extra reminder that what we’re seeing on stage is only an imperfect re-creation. Still, Million Dollar Quartet is full of great music and serves as a fitting tribute to its subjects. Even though the casting isn’t always ideal and it often comes across as more of a concert than a play, it’s a lively, well-played presentation featuring a lot of great music that is worth hearing, remembering, and celebrating.

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Million Dollar Quartet until April 9, 2017.

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Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash
Created by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Conceived by William Meade
Orchestrations by Steven Bishop and Jeff Lisenby
Adapted from the Broadway Production by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Jason Edwards
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 5, 2014

Jason Edwards, Allison Briner, Trenna Barnes, Derek Keeling Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jason Edwards, Allison Briner, Trenna Barnes, Derek Keeling
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It’s difficult to categorize the Rep’s latest production. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash isn’t a play, and although it’s full of music, it’s not exactly a musical or even a revue. It’s not even, strictly speaking, a concert, even though that’s what it most resembles.  It’s basically an acted concert with commentary, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything very much like it before.  It’s not what I was expecting, although it’s definitely entertaining.  An energetic cast of performers and especially musicians makes for a tuneful, enjoyable evening.

This strikes me as the type of show that would most ideally be performed in residence. at a Johnny Cash or country music museum. It’s not strictly a biography, although it certainly has elements of that, with the show’s two “Johnnys”, Jason Edwards and Derek Keeling, taking turns with the narrative and describing memorable incidents in the singer’s life.  Much of the biographical focus centers on Cash’s relationship with his second wife, singer and musician June Carter, and this production also has two “Junes”: Allsion Briner and Trenna Barnes, with Briner mostly being paired with Edwards’s older Johnny, and Barnes with Keeling’s younger Cash.  Briner also has some memorable moments as Johnny’s mother early in the first act.  In addition to biographical material, the show is also an exploration of themes in Cash’s music, such as faith, suffering, country life, traveling, humor, and romance. There’s also a memorable sequence in the second act focusing on Cash’s songs about prisoners and prison life, such as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Orleans Parish Prison”.  It’s a celebration of the singer’s musical legacy, with as many songs as the show’s compilers could fit into its two acts, ranging from his radio hits (“I Walk the Line”, “Ring of Fire”, etc.) to traditional songs like “In the Sweet By and By”.  Fans of traditional Country music, and of Cash in particular, are sure to find many songs they recognize well represented here.

The format is somewhat chronological, starting with Cash’s recounting his ancestry and early life, and ending with his death, accompanied by a photo memorial projected on a screen.  The four principals are energetic and engaging, with each having stand-out moments. Edwards, while not sounding very much like Cash, still has a strong presence, and especially makes an impression with “Man In Black” in the second act.  Keeling, as the younger Johnny, has more of a Cash-like voice, and  has some very strong moments with “Sunday Morning’s Coming Down” and “A Boy Named Sue”. Barnes and Briner also display strong voices and a great deal of energy in their roles, with Barnes giving a fun performance of the humorous “Flushed From the Bathroom of My Heart” and Briner excelling on the old hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”. Both also demonstrate good chemistry with their “Johnnys”, trading verses on “If I Were A Carpenter” and other love duets.  The four leads are also backed by an excellent group of musicians who occasionally play small roles in the dramatizations, and occasionally join in the singing. The standouts here are John W. Marshall in a virtuoso performance on the upright bass, and the charming, wiry Brantley Kearns on fiddle and in various singing and speaking roles, most notably in a memorable comic performance of “Delia’s Gone” in Act 2. It’s a very cohesive musical ensemble, bringing life and energy to this great catalog of songs.

The striking set by John Iacovelli features an authentic-seeming country house with a front porch, where the musicians assemble in an extended jam session, and a prominent screen with evocative projections by Joe Payne. Pictures from Cash’s life, as well as various thematic images add to the overall atmosphere and tone of the production. There are also some excellent, colorful costumes by Lou Bird, ranging from classy black suits for the Johnnys to brightly hued dresses for the Junes, and various costumes such as prison garb and farmers’ work clothes for the thematic segments.

As the subtitle states, this show is all about the music of Johnny Cash.  It’s more about the music than the man, to a degree, although it can certainly be said that you can’t really separate this man from his music.  The music is well represented here, from the poignant to the plaintive to the upbeat and whimsical.  Overall, though, the tone is a more contemplative homage to the Man in Black. His fans especially should appreciate this show.

Brantley Kearns Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Brantley Kearns
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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