Paramount’s ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ brilliantly offers escape paired with poignancy

Often, musical theatre is the perfect escape from the realities of a seemingly increasingly difficult world. And Paramount Theatre’s impeccable production of Chicago favorite Million Dollar Quartet is mostly that. But there’s a moment at the end of Act One in this embellished, one-day-in-the-life biography of rock ‘n’ roll record producer Sam Phillips, during which anyone paying attention to the currently fraught international landscape has to gasp.

Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins sing, “We ain’t gonna study war no more. We ain’t gonna study war no more. We ain’t gonna study war no more…” The Negro spiritual dating to the Civil War, often called “Down By the Riverside,” rings through Aurora’s magnificent historical edifice, seemingly imploring the immensely flawed world leadership who threaten any hope for peace.

Hauntingly. “We ain’t gonna study war no more, Kim Jong-un.”

In perfect harmony. “We ain’t gonna study war no more, Donald Trump.”

Part dirge. “We ain’t gonna study war no more, ISIS or ISIL or whatever the hell we’re supposed to call you now.”

Part hootenanny. “We ain’t gonna study war no more, you assholes in the KKK, you neo-Nazis, you white supremacists.”

The only thing that would make the moment more poignant would be to mash that song into Dino Valenti‘s “Get Together,” with the Million Dollar Quartet intoning:
“Come on people now
Smile on each other
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now.”

But adding that folk song made popular by the Youngbloods in 1967 would be an anachronistic touch to this “based on the true story” of the day in 1956 when the rock ‘n’ roll Mt. Rushmore payed homage to their sculptor at his Memphis-based Sun Records studio.

The part concert, part biopic includes more than 20 early rock, folk and country hits sung by America’s fab four. It was created by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, premiered in Florida (2006) and enjoyed a successful Broadway run (2010-11) that included a Best Musical Tony nom. But arguably, the show’s greatest success was enjoyed in Chicago, where its 2008 Goodman opening transferred to the Apollo theatre and stayed until January 2016, closing after nearly 3,000 performances.

Back at the Paramount on a much larger stage, Kevin Depinet‘s lush unit set features a cutaway to the interior of Sun Records beneath a massive Memphis water tower, a  light post and giant Gibson guitar facsimile. It’s all beautifully lit by Jesse Klug, who saves a magnificent lighting surprise for the show’s encores.

The plot focuses on December 4, 1956, when Presley (with girlfriend Dyanne), Perkins, Cash and Lewis all happened to be in attendance at Phillips’ studio. The event was captured by a famous photograph, and Phillips is credited with coining the title moniker to represent the four men’s whose careers he launched. Business is mixed with the pleasure of the evening’s jam session, and while the talented musicians are the stuff of this terrific musical, it’s clear this is really Phillips’ story. (A full history and plot summary may be read here.)

Gorgeous precision in the music is credited to Musical Director Kory Danielson and features a dynamic duo of onstage musicians: Zach Lentino on bass (playing Perkin’s brother Jay), and Scott Simon on percussion (Fluke). Together with Danielson, Director Jim Corti guides this production with his typical tender, loving care. With both master musicianship and necessarily superior acting/impressionism, the quartet members effectively sell their representations of American legends. Perkins’ “Who do You Love?” (Adam Wesley Brown) Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (Bill Scott Sheets), Presley’s “Hound Dog” (Kavan Hashemian) and Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” (Gavin Rohrer), the most well-known hits in a chock-full songbook, are part of the American musical canon. Merely singing them well is not good enough; these men must become their alter egos. Suffice it to say they do so with great aplomb.

Among the four, Rohrer as Lewis is given the most to work with. He’s a show in and of himself, playing the piano with multiple body parts from angles that could make a gymnast blush. He is a truly gifted performer. 

Among the singers, the immensely talented Courtney Mack is a knockout as Elvis’ girlfriend who fits in well with this group of elite men. The sultry “Fever” and rhythm and blues standard “I Hear You Knockin'” are all her own, and her delivery puts Mack front and center on casting agents’ lists of future leading ladies.

Finally, Nicholas Harazin as Phillips is every bit the fine actor his impressive resume suggests. With his musical contribution as strictly a backup singer (perhaps an aside ballad would be an appropriate addition), he is the constant reminder that relationships are the key to good business and that none of the success of this Million Dollar Quartet’s members would have come without him.

As the first production in Paramount’s seventh Broadway season, Million Dollar Quartet thoroughly entertains. It offers a sorely needed “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” escape from 2017 to a memorable day in 1956. But at its best, it also reminds patrons of the constant need for some soul searching best achieved down by the riverside.

Paramount Theatre presents “Million Dollar Quartet” through October 29 at 23 East Galena Blvd., Aurora. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.

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