Review: Florida Rep’s ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ kills it. And so does The Killer.March 27, 2019
There’s a reason they call him The Killer.
I’ve seen three different productions of “Million Dollar Quartet” now. And in every single one, the character of Jerry Lee Lewis absolutely kills it. And I mean that in the best possible way.
It’s a juicy role, to be sure. And in Florida Rep’s new production of the jukebox musical, actor Brady Wease doesn’t buck the trend. He rings every last possible drop he can from the role.
Wease’s Killer is a force of nature, all libido and cockiness and feral, backwoods Louisiana charm. Simply put, you can’t take your eyes off him as he drawls and leers and pounds the living bejesus out of his piano (make that his PIE-ano).
Naturally, he gets some of the best lines in the musical, too — delivered with wild-eyed mischief and note-perfect comedic timing.
“My mom LOVES that song,” he says after hearing Johnny Cash sing “Folsom Prison Blues.” “It reminds her of my daddy.”
How can you top such a hilarious, go-for-broke performance? Honestly, you can’t. But the other stars in “Million Dollar Quartet” do their best, turning in solid and often jaw-dropping takes on Sun Records superstars Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley.
Director Jason Parrish has assembled an impressive cast for this rare Florida Rep musical — and more importantly, an impressive group of singer/musicians. Nobody’s faking the music onstage. All the actors really sing and really play their own instruments.
Gregg Hammer portrays a characteristically reserved Johnny Cash, but he gives you goosebumps when he drops his voice really, REALLY low on “Sixteen Tons” (then makes you laugh when he turns to Lewis and says, “You’ll get there someday, Jerry Lee!”).
Joe Boover’s Elvis Presley has a likable charm and some crazy, swiveling hips that have to be seen to be believed. And Jeremy Sevelovitz’s earthy country boy Carl Perkins not only sizzles on the guitar – but in one memorable scene, he shreds on it while standing on top of an upright bass played by Daniel Bailey.
They’re joined by Elvis’s sassy, oh-my-God-I-think-I-love-her-too girlfriend Dyanne (played by Julie Kavanagh, who does a little killing, herself, on the sultry “Fever”), a back-up band made up of Bailey and drummer/music director David Sonneborn, and especially Brendan Powers as the wise and passionate “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Sun Records owner Sam Phillips.
Together, this smoking-hot cast nearly blows the roof off Florida Repertory Theatre (not really, of course. It just feels like it). And the audience cheers and hoots and claps like these four dudes really ARE Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
This doesn’t feel like any old musical. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll revival, pure and simple.
The story drops the audience into the famous Sun Records studio in Memphis for that near mythical day when Presley, Perkins, Lewis and Cash gathered for a never-repeated, one-night-only recording session in 1956. That gathering later became known as The Million Dollar Quartet.
The musical isn’t without problems, though. And I’m talking about the script, not the performances. Some of the show’s dramatic developments are a little too convenient to be believable. And some of the lines can be super-corny. “I swear,” Elvis says at one point, “I’ll never play Vegas again.”
Go ahead and roll your eyes. I did. But I’ll gladly put up with a few groaners for a musical that’s this much fun.
You probably already know all these classic rock, country and gospel songs if you’re older than, say, 40. Even the youngsters might know a few from movies and TV commercials.
But these aren’t golden oldies. Not here. Music director Sonneborn and his cast take those classics, kick them in the butt and make them come to sizzling, thrilling life.
Everyone looks like they’re having a blast, too — especially on the crowd-pleasing “fantasy concert” finale that dumps the story altogether and transforms the show into a full-on rock concert with each star taking a turn on one of his most famous songs.
Show highlights — and there are many — include the gospel number “Down By the Riverside,” with all four men’s voices blending in soul-stirring, four-part harmony; Lewis kicking his piano stool all the way across the stage as he lays into his piano for the raucous finale; Perkins’ sizzling guitar on “Blue Suede Shoes” (a song, Carl will tell you, that HE wrote and not Elvis Presley); and Presley’s haunting, unexpectedly mournful take on “Peace in the Valley.”
It’s a magical, mythical, roof-raising recording session. And yeah, I know, it probably never actually happened this way. That’s OK. It’s cool just to sit in on the Million Dollar Quartet, even a fictionalized version.
Sure, The Killer steals the show. He always did. But there’s so much more to love in Florida Rep’s outstanding “Million Dollar Quartet.”
So go for Jerry Lee Lewis. But stay for the rock ‘n’ roll.
Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells (Facebook), @charlesrunnells (Twitter), @crunnells1 (Instagram)