"Million Dollar Quartet" shakes up BTG's Unicorn Theatre

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STOCKBRIDGE — On the evening of Dec. 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis gathered in a recording studio at the legendary Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn. and made some music.

That it happened is true. Indeed, a famous photo of the four — dubbed the "Million Dollar Quartet" by Sun Records owner and producer Sam Phillips — is the last image projected on an angular strip above the stage at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre where a jukebox musical inspired by the happening is, well, rocking the house. Whether it happened the way Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux tell it is unlike;y and the book they have fashioned as a means of getting from one classic rock/rockabilly song to the next is, at best, lame.

"Million Dollar Quartet" is framed as a memory play as Phillips, played with snarl, bark and bite by Ben Nordstrom. At moments, he is an avuncular figure looking out for the good and welfare of his million dollar clients while protecting his own interests as well.

As it happens, Phillips' own interests are in peril. The dramatic spine of "Million Dollar Quartet" is driven by the will-he-won't-he matter of accepting an offer from RCA Records to buy his company and hire him as well; so he can be rejoined with Presley, whom RCA had lured away from Sun Records. Unbeknownst to Phillips, two other clients, Cash — to whom Phillips is getting ready to offer a lucrative contract extension — and Perkins, also are getting ready to bail out. Phillips' hope for the future is pinned on a wild young singer-pianist named Jerry Lee Lewis (a perfectly manic Gabriel Aronson) who has a lot to prove to the veteran singers ... and does.

Phillips steps in and out of the action on stage narrating the events of the evening, giving background on the guys, how he found them or they found him; commenting on the vagaries of the record business and what it takes to survive. It's also a sentimental journey. As Phillips notes near the end, the Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis we see here are pre-bad boy days; before drugs and alcohol seized them. Here, they are fresh-faced and innocent, especially Brycen Katolinsky's Elvis, who comes to the studio attached to a pinch-voiced girlfriend-singer named Dianne (Christy Coco). There is a purity and certain ingenuousness in each of these men.

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But " Million Dollar Quartet" is not about story or the dialogue that bridges the musical numbers. "Million Dollar Quartet" is about music and when this cast, individually and together, is singing and playing, it's enough to nearly raise the Unicorn off its foundations.

There is a certain stiff formality in Bill Sheets' Johnny Cash but he is a compelling presence on stage, nonetheless, especially when he is singing. His "Folsom Prison" is haunting and memorable as is his "Ghost Riders in the Sky." As do Aronson as Lewis, Colin Summers as Carl Perkins and Katolinsky as Elvis, Sheets has the good sense to evoke Johnny Cash rather than imitate him.

The four unite for a moving "Down By the Riverside" and if you think everything's over after Aronson's "Whole Lotta Shakin'," stick around for the curtain call. There's a great postscript; sort of a mini-concert in which each of the four does a turn.

James Barry, who has played Carl Perkins on national tour and in regional productions, makes his directing debut with this production and his work is smooth and masterly, as is his contribution as music director.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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