Maine’s aging population — we have the oldest median age in the nation — has to play an increasingly significant role in the decisions theater companies make about what productions to stage.
The shows need to appeal to Maine’s high concentration of baby boomers — especially when retirement communities serve as season sponsors — without sinking so deeply into nostalgia that anyone born after the Summer of Love will turn their backs on what they perceive to be saccharine-laced longing for bygone days and their parents’ outdated tunes.
Maine State Music Theatre deftly managed to thread that needle with “Million Dollar Quartet,” the first offering in its 60th anniversary season. The production wraps a heavy dose of idol worship for the early days of rock ‘n’ roll with enough body comedy, witty dialogue, hot licks and stagecraft to appeal to pretty much anyone older than 12.
And it’s all based — pretty much — on a true story.
On Dec. 4, 1956, four greats of early rock ‘n’ roll gathered by chance at Sun Records in Memphis. Sam Phillips, originator and owner of the iconic recording studio, wanted to get another hit song out of Carl Perkins and asked an up-and-coming but still unknown piano whiz named Jerry Lee Lewis to add some twinkling ivories to Perkins’ guitar crunching.
They were joined by former Sun star, Elvis Presley, whom Phillips had reluctantly sold to RCA Victor for a significant sum, and the man in black, Johnny Cash. The four men share humble upbringings in backwater towns, soul-saving Southern gospel, and a love of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Million Dollar Quartet” attempts to recreate what happened that night, punctuated by solid renditions of the songs that made these players famous. It’s a fairly recent Tony-nominated musical that opened on Broadway in 2010, with book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux who have adapted it for television under the title “Sun Records.”
Jason Loughlin as Sam Phillips is the lynchpin of the show. Like the congenial narrator for the play “Our Town,” Loughlin provides sensitive commentary adds context and invites show goers to be more than mere flies on the wall. He makes the audience care about the fate of these men and his beloved small business that launched many a rock ‘n’ roll legend.
Speaking of legends, those who remember watching Elvis gyrate his hips are now of the age when many of the hips they wiggled along with him have been surgically replaced. Because enough time has passed since Elvis left the building, it is a relief that his role in this play doesn’t outshine the other — some might say — more talented names.
Elvis, as portrayed by Ari McKay Wilford, plays a more secondary role in “Million Dollar Quartet.” It is probably impossible to play Elvis and not overdo his mannerisms — in this case, the heartthrob’s famous sneer-like lip gymnastics — but McKay Wilford generally manages to avoid coming off as yet another bad Elvis impersonator.
Kudos to director Hunter Foster for casting someone who does not look at all like Elvis, as well as for finding performers who fill the huge shoes of Perkins, Cash and Lewis without trying to imitate them or create caricatures.
Maine native Scott Moreau plays the young Cash as reserved and quiet, blending in with the background until he opens his mouth and his booming bass delivers the blues like nobody else.
James Barry imbues his Carl Perkins with all the bounce of the great rockabilly star, plus a realistic dose of bitterness at seeing his No. 1 hit, Blue Suede Shoes, get credited to Elvis who covered it on television while Perkins was recovering from an auto accident.
Brandyn Day also looks nothing like Jerry Lee Lewis but he plays the piano with acrobatic aplomb enhanced by a gift for physical comedy. He came close to stealing the show. The audience wasn’t one for singing along but Day could probably get laughs out of even the deadest house.
Rounding out the talented cast are Zach Cossman as the drummer Fluke, Eric Scott Anthony as Brother Jay (Perkins) playing upright bass, and Brittany Danielle as Dyanne, Elvis’ girlfriend and the only anachronism of the story. Danielle shares the spotlight, singing two sultry solos and adding some gender equity to the stage.
Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark notes at the show’s introduction that all performers are playing their own instruments. There is no band. One of the highlights is to watch how each musician, especially Day as Lewis and Barry as Perkins, play off each other’s riffs or duel to push themselves to new musical heights. As the night heats up, Scott Anthony morphs from staid background musician to stage dynamo pulling off tricks with an upright bass that would make Jimi Hendrix blush with envy.
The tragedy and heartbreak that marked each of these famous musicians’ lives lurks in the shadows, offering context for their place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. But for one night, the joy of music and camaraderie prevailed, as captured by this raucous, rewarding production from Maine State Music Theatre.
Performances run through June 23 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call 207-725-8769 or click here for ticket information.
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