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Review: ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ Rocks Bucks County Playhouse

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Review: ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ Rocks Bucks County Playhouse
Making Music: John Michael Presney, left, James David Larson, Sky Seals, Brandyn Day, Ari McKay Wilford, Zach Cossman (on drums), Ryah Nixon, and James Ludwig.
Making Music: John Michael Presney, left, James David Larson, Sky Seals, Brandyn Day, Ari McKay Wilford, Zach Cossman (on drums), Ryah Nixon, and James Ludwig.

Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, the great influencer of Paul McCartney, in one room for one night. It’s fate. It’s history. It’s a musical.

It’s “Million Dollar Quartet,” a surefire blood-pumping musical that may have an old hound dog of a script, played with unapologetic superficiality at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse, but which turns to great balls of fire when the guitars start wailing, the drums start pounding, the hips start twitching, the snarls are in place, and good old rock and roll shakes our nerves and rattles our brains.

The music, plain and simple, is the show. At least at Bucks County, it is.

Hunter Foster, an alumnus of the original Broadway cast, keeps all at fever pitch as a director. That may mean performers race through lines without much expression or texture, but it also recognizes those lines are fairly unimportant and that the bread-and-butter of “Million Dollar Quartet” is one for the money and the two for the show.

As proven by “Blue Suede Shoes,” a rousing opener because Perkins wrote it and made it a hit while Presley cemented its fame on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the singing and musicianship of Foster’s multi-talented cast carry the day. Eagerness and anticipation make Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s lame if informative book a vehicle for impatience. Whatever is being relayed, you want everyone to shut up, get to their mikes, and deliver the musical goods.

Those goods are golden. They extend beyond the featured quartet to the flashy yet nonchalantly gymnastic bass playing of James David Larson, primarily a backup musician for the leads, but as he showed — twice — in BCP’s “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” an attraction of his own.

Watching Larson balance himself on his bass, handling it like a guitar, or playing it upside down may be an addition to what Escott and Mutrux had in mind, but it’s a sterling one — fun, impressive, and entertaining at the same time.

The best part is Larson can go through his antics without missing a beat, including some witty beats. His instrumental acrobatics compound in amusement when John Michael Presney, playing Carl Perkins and doubling as “Quartet’s” music director, joins him in dangling from the bass.

Presney is the best of a good cast at BCP. He alone radiates reality and convinces as a one-time hillbilly with an urge to sing who comes to Memphis, shows off his talent to star-maker Sam Phillips (James Ludwig), and rockets to stardom as Cash, Presley, and Lewis will after him.

A production of ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ that blends dialogue and music is possible. The choice at BCP is to bust through it, let some facts settle on the crowd, and go back to the music.

Presney is one performer, with the possible exception of Larson, who never seems to be acting out or showing off but living the being of Carl Perkins. His snarl seems naturally implanted rather than added for the occasion like Ari McKay Wilford’s is as Elvis. His swagger seems built in to the character. Presney may be from Illinois, but he conveys country-boy charm that builds into charisma when he performs.

One thing that can help Presney’s performance would be sound designer Bart Fasbender lowering the volume on the BCP mikes, which are, as the current trend goes, too hot, so that the intensity keeps you from hearing the lyrics of some songs.

Presney is the best, but that doesn’t diminish the fine turns of his castmates. If sound were the only sense that mattered, some folks would swear the Johnny Cash was in the room when Sky Seals launches into “Folsom Prison Blues” and continues with other Cash hits.

From pitch to a slight gravelly catch, Seals gets everything vocal about Cash right. He has his physicality too. While not looking like Cash, he has the walk, posture, pace, and most importantly, the voice down to beyond science.

Daddy sang bass, and Seals has a good and true tone he, thankfully, gets to display often, to great advantage in a group version of “Sixteen Tons” and a solo of “Ghostriders in the Sky.”

Though not a member of the quartet, Sam Phillips is the architect who found the future stars and crafted their careers. James Ludwig plays him with aplomb. It is not Ludwig’s fault that the authors, or Foster, have him asking too often for applause (that would come anyhow) and other forms of shilling. He overcomes their pandering by being a resourceful and congenial host.

Ludwig has an apt expression for any occasion. He may be saddled with jokes as ancient as they are corny, but he nails their intent and is actually able to salvage some of the genuinely dramatic moments in “Quartet” in spite of the breakneck speed of Foster’s staging.

Ludwig’s is a good performance. He comes across as part Johnny Carson, part James Stewart crushed by the defection of people to whom Phillips is fair and loyal.

Oh, yes, “Million Dollar Quartet” has a story beyond the accidental congregating of some show business greats. Phillips is about to lose the stable he has built. He has already sacrificed Presley and is about to see Cash and Perkins go to record companies that can take them further and make them richer.

A book is there. A production of “Million Dollar Quartet” that blends dialogue and music is possible. I’ve seen one. The choice at BCP is to bust through it, let some facts settle on the crowd, and go back to the music.

As implied, that’s not a bad or wrong choice, only an incomplete one that emphasizes one part of the show and neglects another. The right choice was made.

Another “Buddy” veteran, Zach Cossman, may not have the opportunity to dazzle us with bass antics, like Larson does, but his drumming is superb and rates notice for musical wit akin to Larson’s.

Musicianship remains the soul of this show and it never quits — nor does the enthusiasm or verve to Foster’s production.

One thing you can be sure of with Hunter Foster: there will be original ideas, and excitement will be stirred. His forte is intensity, in this case getting the joint rocking, and he accomplishes that with dividends. Dancing does reach the aisles. It would be a losing dare to try to stay still.

Brandyn Day may look, in his makeup, like Harpo Marx and go about his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis as if he were Mozart in “Amadeus,” but he exudes liveliness and demonstrates it fully when he delivers Lewis’s high-style piano licks and bats out his hits, “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

Ryah Nixon adds some chesty alto and classic soprano to the occasion as Dyanne, a woman Elvis brings with him from L.A. Nixon uses acting as well as musical skills as Dyanne tries to make all peaceful at the quartet’s session.

Ironically, the character who seems to matter least in “Million Dollar Quartet” is Elvis, who next year at this time, will be dead for as long as he lived.

Ari McKay Wilford is as solid a contributor as anyone to ensemble numbers and can shine in solos, but his Elvis fades into the background for much of the show.

One remarkable achievement is Josh Smith’s set, a music studio one could move into. Anyone familiar with BCP history has to realize the difference between now and the past when they see the quality and clean lines of Smith’s design.

Million Dollar Quartet, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Saturday, September 15. Tuesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 8 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 2 p.m. $40 to $90. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.

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