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Orlando Shakes Million Dollar Quartet full of riches: Review

todayAugust 7, 2023 1

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Well, goodness gracious, great balls of fire. Orlando Shakes’ “Million Dollar Quartet” is a welcome jolt of energy in these dog days of summer.

The Broadway musical opens the theater’s 35th season with a bang. And the show even gives a moment or two to think about something deeper than the four superstars depicted onstage.

“Million Dollar Quarter” is based on a real-life occurrence: On Dec. 4, 1956 Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley all turned up at the Sun Records studio, where all four got their start. Sam Phillips, founder and owner of the Memphis record company, tells the audience what then transpired in this imagining of the evening by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux.

Each of the four actors portraying the singers also plays his own instrument, which is impressive in itself. And none is more impressive than Nat Zegree, as Lewis. His fingers burn up the keyboard with the kind of showmanship that thrillingly seems on the verge of spinning out of control yet with the assurance that everything is perfectly in place.

As Jerry Lee Lewis, Nat Zegree plays piano blindfolded in the Orlando Shakes production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” (Courtesy Tony Firriolo via Orlando Shakes)

Zegree, who has played the role many times before, also serves as the production’s music director — and gets authentically rockin’ performances from his co-stars, including bassist Chuck Zayas and drummer Adam Langs, who back the others with panache.

Zegree and his cohorts nicely balance the tricky task of calling to mind iconic celebrities without resorting to caricature. Instead, it’s possible to contemplate their inner spirit away from the public gaze: A bunch of self-proclaimed hillbillies who found success comes with its own set of problems.

John Rochette conveys the innocence of a young Elvis, already trapped in the fame machine. Bart Mather quietly gives us the still-waters-run-deep person of Cash, and Jeremy Sevelovitz captures the brooding anger of rockabilly king Perkins, already fighting to stay on top of the charts.

John Rochette gets his hips swiveling as Elvis Presley in Orlando Shakes' production of "Million Dollar Quartet." (Courtesy Tony Firriolo via Orlando Shakes)
John Rochette gets his hips swiveling as Elvis Presley in Orlando Shakes’ production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” (Courtesy Tony Firriolo via Orlando Shakes)

But it’s up to Zegree to energize proceedings, in the showiest role as upstart Lewis, full of manic energy and more than happy to needle his elders with a devil-may-care attitude. Astonishingly, Zegree never flags for a moment and only becomes more electrifying as the show progresses.

Top-notch support is provided by Lauren Culver as Presley’s girlfriend, who sparkles as she delivers a sultry “Fever” and a sassy “I Hear You Knockin’, and John Gardiner as Phillips. It’s Gardiner who delivers the lines that just for a second go below the shiny surface to something deeper.

“This is where the soul of a man never dies,” he says in one of the best ways of explaining the power of music or any sort of artistic creation.

Jeremy Sevelovitz, from left, Nat Zegree, Lauren Culver, John Rochette and Bart Mather star in the Orlando Shakes production of "Million Dollar Quartet." (Courtesy Tony Firriolo via Orlando Shakes)
Jeremy Sevelovitz, from left, Nat Zegree, Lauren Culver, John Rochette and Bart Mather star in the Orlando Shakes production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” (Courtesy Tony Firriolo via Orlando Shakes)

The production makes a distinction between performance mics and actors’ speaking microphones, which sometimes leaves the ears struggling to catch up at the transitions. And on opening weekend, a few times the band’s underscore was in competition with the dialogue instead of complementing it.

But Denise Warner’s costumes beautifully evoke the period and reflect the assorted personalities, while George Jackson’s lighting neatly and strikingly changes mood from the real studio to concert-like performances.

As for those performances, the old songs sound great: “Great Balls of Fire,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and a party-like curtain call with “Hound Dog,” “See You Later Alligator” and more. But you might leave thinking of the two gospel numbers: “Down by the Riverside” and “Peace in the Valley.”

Hearing those songs, you feel like you are really peering into the souls of these musical legends who have all now left this mortal coil. After all, the music is where the soul never dies.

‘Million Dollar Quartet’

  • Length: 2:15, including intermission
  • Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando
  • When: Through Aug. 20
  • Cost: $32.86 and up
  • Info: orlandoshakes.org

Follow me at facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com. Find more arts news and reviews at orlandosentinel.com/arts, and go to orlandosentinel.com/theater for theater news and reviews.



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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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