The mighty Austin Symphony is here to save the day

Now that the Austin Symphony has consummated Part 3 of its “Mighty Russians” series, it has completely shed its former reputation for underplaying big music. Almost to a fault.

Music director Peter Bay opened the formal part of the concert on Saturday with the bright and bold “Carnaval Overture” by Alexander Glazunov. Dismissed by some critics in the 20th century as merely “academic” — in other words, glib, predictable, conservative — Glazunov is also capable of great orchestral virtuosity. This rousing performance — a taste of what was to come at the Long Center for the Performing Arts — made me want to dive right into his eight completed symphonies.

Lise de la Salle. Contribute by Marco Borggreve

Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 is all about the soloist, but the ensemble is given plenty of opportunity to introduce and expand on the piece’s gorgeous themes and variations. French pianist Lise de la Salle did not shy away from the famous concerto’s showiness. Compact and contained when off the bench, in performance, she swayed and nodded, extended her arcing arms, attacked the keyboard like an avenging angel, then caressed it like tender companion.

At times, de la Salle’s hands appeared to blur over the complicated finger work. (“I can’t imagine what the score looks like,” said a friend during intermission.) Besides technical skill and fearlessness, she added some interpretive touches, such as startling hesitations and a certain playfulness with the composer’s unconventional rhythms. These seemed to bleed right into her delicately rendered encore selection: a Debussy Prelude.

“How are they going to top that?” said the stranger seated next to me after intermission.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s “Manfred Symphony” is all over the place. Based on the poem by Lord Byron, it is at times unabashedly pictorial, at other times outright theatrical, always Gothic and so varied that a listener sometimes gets tangled in its taiga of melodies.

This is where we get to part about Austin Symphony’s plenteous sound. Remember back at Bass Concert Hall prior to 2008? “Manfred” would have shrunken to “Boyfred.” (Sorry.) Nowadays, the orchestra’s power rises, if not quite to the level of a major American ensemble, quite close, especially with the additional brass.

At times, it went right up to the point of excess. I felt a little pummeled. But that’s what “Manfred” calls for and the Austin Symphony delivered mightily.

In the mood for a rom-com? ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ still charms

There are a lot of shows opening in Austin the next few weeks specifically themed for the holiday season, but if you’re looking for a fun, cozy comedy full of warmth and cheer, Austin Shakespeare has an option that might fit the bill without a hint of tinsel in sight — their new production of “Much Ado about Nothing,” running through Dec. 3 in the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center.

Max Green, Susan Myburgh, Toby Minor and Colum Morgan in Austin Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Contributed by Errich Petersen Photography

“Much Ado” is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, in large part because of how influential it has been over the entire genre of the romantic comedy as we know it today. The bickering between romantic leads Beatrice and Benedick, full of sarcastic jabs, evolves over the course of the play into loving jests just as in modern rom-coms.

The story of the younger lovers, Claudio and Hero, doesn’t age quite as well, defined as it is by men taking the false word of other men over the protestations of women they supposedly love. But this production does its best to mitigate the text’s inherent misogyny through strong character work. Joseph Banks, as Claudio, is delightfully charming and soft-spoken in the show’s first half, focusing more on the character’s feeling of betrayal than his rage upon learning of Hero’s “unfaithfulness.” Corinna Browning, meanwhile, showcases Hero’s quote strength and self-assurance rather than allowing her to simply become a punching bag and victim to the schemes of the play’s villains.

Gwendolyn Kelso and Marc Pouhé in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Contributed by Errich Petersen Photography

Gwendolyn Kelso and Marc Pouhé, as Beatrice and Benedick, are no slouches, either. They have some of the wittiest and silliest moments of the play, milking both types of comedy for big laughs from the audience. Indeed, the entire production is silly, in a truly endearing way. Gifted physical comedians Toby Minor and Susan Myburgh, as the chief of the city’s citizen-police and his partner Verges, respectively, bring the show its moment of broadest humor as well as the few times that the humor gets a bit over-the-top.

The decision by director Ann Ciccolella to place this production in the Belle Époque, to the saucy rhythms of bossa nova music (with original compositions by Greg Bolin), works beautifully with Shakespeare’s text, turning the setting of Messina, Sicily, into a swinging beachside resort that provides a delightful backdrop for love and hijinks. Scenic and lighting designer Patrick Anthony’s all-white set, evocatively illuminated by a variety of clever lighting schemes, work with Benjamin Taylor Ridgway’s costumes to further develop this atmosphere that’s ripe for a romp.

Though not as soul-searching as Shakespeare’s tragedies, and certainly filled with gender politics that are particularly painful and abrasive in the culture of today’s world, “Much Ado About Nothing” still stands up as an endearing love story filled with wacky situations, clever jokes and, of course, a happy ending.

“MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 3
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Cost: $22
Information: austinshakespeare.org

See another powerful work from ‘Moonlight’ writer on stage in ‘The Brothers Size’

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney should be a familiar name to Austin audiences, between winning last year’s Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for “Moonlight” (based on his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”) and a moving production of his play “In the Red and Brown Water” by the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance last October. The latter is the first part of a triptych of related works, called “The Brother/Sister Plays,” and now Capital T Theatre brings us the second, “The Brothers Size.”

“The Brothers Size” follows up on the lives of two supporting characters from “In the Red and Brown Water,” Ogun and Elegba, while introducing us to Ogun’s brother Oshoosi. The play stands completely on its own, though audiences familiar with the first play will see connections between the story and themes of both works. The story follows Oshoosi shortly after his release from prison as he struggles to live a life on the straight-and-narrow under Ogun’s hardworking influence. At the same time, he yearns for a more carefree life with his former prison friend Elegba.

Capital T Theatre is usually known for its productions of incisive, and sometimes savage, black comedies, which makes this lyrical, dream-filled family drama something of a departure for the company. Jason Phelps, who usually appears on stage in Capital T productions, helms this show as director, bringing a unique, poetic sensibility that contrasts nicely with artistic director Mark Pickell’s more gritty, earthbound style. This change of pace perfectly suits the text and makes for a strong production that serves to better diversify the range of voices heard on Austin’s stages.

The three men at the heart of “The Brothers Size” each have emotionally and physically demanding roles to play — portraying varying shades of masculine identity and expressing the unique and trying demands of brotherhood, in all its mutable forms. As Ogun Size, John Christopher portrays a gentle giant whose outbursts of anger at his brother barely disguise the deep, heartfelt love underneath the surface. Sean Christopher, as Oshoosi, is dreamy and indeterminate, without ever crossing the line into becoming insufferable. The chemistry that the two men have as brothers is palpable, and the scenes they share together crackle with electricity as they move from anger to joy to sorrow. The always reliable Delanté Keys, as Elegba, is the perfect foil to Ogun and siren song to Oshoosi, providing the crucible that brings to life the brothers’ relationship.

McCraney’s poetic style in “The Brother/Sister Plays” is unique, and “The Brothers Size” is no exception. The actors state their stage directions (sometimes conspiratorially to the audience), and scenes often dissolve into dreams or chants. It can be difficult at first to fall into the play’s rhythm, but the deliberate pacing and lack of an intermission allow the words and the actors to slowly weave their hypnotic spell on the audience.

As assistant director and dramaturge, Crystal Bird Caviel explains in the program notes, “McCraney has revealed that he is intentionally trying to create a drum-like cadence and rhythm in the speech of the actors using beats, pivots, and inflection to create the unique poetic dialogue of ‘The Brothers Size.’” Phelps, Caviel and their powerful cast quite effectively capture this rhythm on the stage, making McCraney’s evocative work into a timely and potent piece of theatrical magic.

“THE BROTHERS SIZE”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Nov. 18
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.
Cost: $20-$30
Information: capitalt.org

Texas State’s ‘A Chorus Line’ is a singular sensation

When it first hit Broadway in 1975, “A Chorus Line” was a critical and commercial sensation. Praised for providing a raw, realistic glimpse into the lives of Broadway chorus dancers, the musical won the Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as multiple Tony Awards, and would go on to become the longest running show in Broadway history at the time.

Texas State University is kicking off a new season of college theater with a production of “A Chorus Line.” Contributed

In part because of its stark simplicity (the setting is a bare theater stage), the show has become a staple of local and regional theater companies, as well as at colleges, community theaters and even high schools. But, does a show that was ultra-contemporary in its time still resonate over 40 years later?

Texas State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance’s new production of “A Chorus Line” reminds us that, yes, this show still has a lot to say about youth, desire, individuality, conformity and, ultimately, the nature of musical theater itself.

Not only does this production reassert the power of the show, but it also puts a huge spotlight on the immense amount of talent that the Department of Theatre and Dance is turning out. And because it is fully sponsored by Legacy Mutual Mortgage, all ticket sales will go towards student scholarships.

 RELATED: Taking Texas State to the top in musical theater

“A Chorus Line” is a true ensemble piece, with no real leading actors or supporting players. Telling the story of a daylong audition for a Broadway musical overseen by a director who wants to probe into the dancers’ psychologies as much as their work histories, the show highlights each auditioner in turn. Conceived (and originally directed and choreographed) by Michael Bennett, with a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyrics by Edward Kleban, and music by Marvin Hamlisch, part of the point of the show was to explore the stories of the nameless, faceless Broadway chorus line dancers whose individualities are sublimated into a singular performance of perfectly synced motions.

The irony of this process, and the heartbreak of this erasure of individuality, has never been clearer than in Texas State’s production. Director/choreographer Cassie Abate and musical director Greg Bolin put full faith in their talented cast of younger performers, whose athletic dancing skills, powerful vocals and heartbreaking performances fill up the bare stage more than any complex set ever could.

LEARN MORE: Broadway classic “A Chrous Line” connects with Texas State performers

Similarly, the scenic design by Cheri Prough DeVol, lighting design by Ethan Jones and sound design by Jason Taylor work seamlessly to keep the focus on the line of dancers, while Stacey Johnson’s costume design evokes the 1970s setting without falling into cheesy clichés.

The true stars of this production, though, are the student actors making up the line of auditioning dancers (complimented by faculty member Nick Lawson as the director, Zach, creating an age and powerful differential that gives the show its inherent tension). Continuing the ironies at the heart of the show, it would be almost unfair to single out any particular performance because almost all the actors have standout, show-stopping moments. However, Emma Hearn’s manic, desperate dance solo does deserve special mention, as do the heartbreaking earnestness of Anna Uzele’s musical numbers and the acrobatic shenanigans of CK Anderson.

“A Chorus Line” has always been a show that speaks especially to the lovers of musical theater and the bittersweet reality of dedicating your life to it. Texas State’s dynamic, emotional, engaging new production holds true to this tradition, and it’s clear that for the young performers this show was entirely done for love.

“A CHORUS LINE”
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26-30, 2 p.m. Sept. 30-Oct. 1
Where: Patti Strickel Harrison Theatre, 405 Moon St., San Marcos
Cost: $8-$18
Information: theatreanddance.txstate.edu/Productions/Current-Season.html

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Young actor gives star turn as troubled, tempestuous ‘Prodigal Son’

Playwright John Patrick Shanley, despite a long career that includes winning an Academy Award for the screenplay to the 1987 Cher film “Moonstruck,” is perhaps best known these days for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Doubt,” which was also turned into a critically acclaimed movie starring Meryl Streep.

Sam Domino, left, and Kelly Koonce in Jarrott Productions’ “Prodigal Son.” Contributed by Steve Williams

In his more recent play “Prodigal Son,” Shanley returns to many of the themes of “Doubt,” but with a much more personal, semi-autobiographical (and thus very male-centered) lens. Set in a New Hampshire boys prep school in the 1960s, “Prodigal Son” follows Shanley’s avatar Jim Quinn, a troubled boy from the Bronx given a scholarship to the school, as he tries to negotiate education, adolescence and the poetic yearning to find his place in the world.

Jarrott Productions’ new mounting of “Prodigal Son” captures the austerity of the cold New England climate as well as the heated passions of Jim’s youthfulness. As such, the play can be something of a mixed bag, with some scenes, redolent with simmering tension and emotional sensuality, evocative of Tennessee Williams, while others feature philosophical debates about the nature of faith that are more in the vein of George Bernard Shaw.

THEATER REVIEW: Girl power puts ‘The Wolves’ ahead of the pack

Director Bryan Bradford has created a production that seems to deliberately skirt this line, with reserved performances from the cast of adult teachers juxtaposed against young Sam Domino’s nuanced, troubled, tempestuous portrayal of Jim. Though Jim is prone to long philosophical proclamations and dramatic, emotional outbursts, Domino shines in the character’s quieter moments, showing us Jim’s painful loneliness and discomfort with his own body.

As various members of the school’s faculty, David R. Jarrott, Kelly Koonce and Holly Shupp Salas all provide much more dispassionate performances, which works best in scenes where they are set directly against Jim. Though only really given one scene in which to shine, Tucker Martin’s wistful boyishness as Jim’s roommate Austin helps to create the play’s strongest moments of youthful longing and idyll within such a cool, reserved setting.

That setting, itself, is created in large part from Chris Conard’s slightly impressionistic scenery and tightly focused lighting, as well as Glenda Wolfe’s period-perfect costume design.

As a text, “Prodigal Son” is very much in the tradition of the modernist drama of Arthur Miller, and in many ways it feels like a play not just about the 1960s but also from that era. It eschews the formalist theatrics of more contemporary works to focus instead on acute character study. Jarrott Productions’ version of the play intensifies that study through a dynamic performance from a young leading man, one to watch for in the Austin theatrical scene.

“PRODIGAL SON”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 15
Where: Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity St.
Cost: $15-$30
Information: jarrottproductions.com

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Girl power puts ‘The Wolves’ ahead of the pack

In theater, as in film and television, we often find a significant lack of quality roles for female performers. Fortunately, most Austin theater companies are well aware of this imbalance in so many classic dramatic texts, and they work hard to choose works that showcase diversity.

From left, Sydney Huddleston, Annika Lekven, Adrian Collins, Maria Latiolais, Kelsey Buckley, Estrella Saldaña, Kenzie Stewart, and Shonagh Smith in Hyde Park Theatre’s production of “The Wolves,” by Sarah DeLappe. Contributed by Bret Brookshire.

The venerable Hyde Park Theater, known for its presentation of darkly comedic contemporary dramas, has gone a step further this year, with three tersely-titled plays all written by women — Annie Baker’s “John,” Jen Silverman’s “The Moors,” and now Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves.”

Playing through Oct. 21, “The Wolves” is the perfect show with which to wrap up such a female-centric season. The short, tight, realistic play follows a girls indoor league soccer team (the titular Wolves) through one winter season as they face trials and tragedies both intimate and intense.

DeLappe does a superb job exploring the nine members of the team, who each have a unique personality, outlook and way of speaking. The show begins with a great deal of overlapping conversation, and even overlapping dialogue, as various members of the team simultaneously discuss tampons and the war crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Through many scenes like this one, which mix personal concerns with a wider awareness of the world, we slowly gain insight into the unique foibles and quiet strengths of each girl.

What is perhaps most impressive about “The Wolves” is the way in which it represents a realistic type of girl that we so rarely see on stage or on screen. The members of the soccer team are all high achievers who are legitimately concerned about both their own success and larger world issues. Their dialogue, in a naturalistic style reminiscent of David Mamet, is equally as goofy as it is cutting, ringing true to the way girls their age actually speak. Rather than falling into high school movie tropes, DeLappe shows us the charming, witty, sometimes obnoxious, highly driven girls that we all knew (or were) when we were young.

To that end, director Ken Webster has made two superb high-level choices with “The Wolves” — he has allowed the young cast to express all the messy awkwardness of youth and has taken on assistant director Rosalind Faires to help provide a female voice behind the scenes. With ultra-realistic set design by Mark Pickell, costumes by Cheryl Painter, lights by Don Day and sound by Robert S. Fisher, the audience is placed right on the field with these girls, let into both their tight camaraderie and their squabbling and infighting.

The nine girls who make up “The Wolves” are an acting ensemble in the truest sense of the world. Perhaps thanks to their relatively young age (most of them are recent or current college students), they guilelessly support one another as a full cast, with absolutely no upstaging or scenery chewing. The several scenes in which they flawlessly practice passing the soccer ball serve as a perfect metaphor for the amazing work they do together on stage, completely relying on and trusting one another. Each of them will be somebody to watch for on the Austin stage in the future.

With such a dynamite cast, directed pitch-perfectly in an excellent script, “The Wolves” truly leads the pack of current Austin productions.

‘THE WOLVES’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Oct. 21
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.
Cost: $22-$26
Information: 512-479-7529, hydeparktheatre.com

 

 

 

From nun to genocidal monster: Paper Chairs’ ‘Catalina de Erauso’ looks at history through different lens

We are told early on in Elizabeth Doss’ “Catalina de Erauso” that the titular Catalina and her staged autobiography are a work of historical fiction. As we observe Catalina’s sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing, increasingly outsized misadventures, the complexities and monstrosities of her life take on the shape and force of history, or, more accurately, historical interpretation.

Contributed by Erica Nix

“Catalina de Erauso” is the latest work by Doss, created with Austin’s Paper Chairs theater company, of which she is the co-artistic director and resident playwright. The production, directed by returning Paper Chairs co-founder Dustin Wills, launched the company’s 2017-2018 residency at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a nonprofit sustainable design and architecture firm in East Austin.

The firm’s unique campus — combining a variety of buildings, lean-tos, campers and other structures with wild growths of grass and more than a few mosquitoes (so don’t forget the bug spray) — helps to set the mood for a production that takes its cues from the conventions of traditional traveling theatrical troupes, children’s theater and even, to an extent, Punch and Judy puppet shows.

Alexis Scott plays Catalina, taking her through a picaresque journey from a spunky 14-year-old escaping from a life as a 17th century nun all the way through to becoming a conquering heroine/genocidal monster in the New World. Scott is perfect for the role, presenting the young Catalina with a charming, bouncy, hysterical energy that combines childlike enthusiasm with a much more adult sense of mania.

The rest of the cast take on a variety of roles (both human and animal) but together serve as a kind of Greek chorus of players simultaneously enacting and reacting to Catalina’s story. Their vibrancy and intentionally hyperbolic antics early in the play provide the show with its strongest conceit — using the over-the-top conventions of children’s theater to tell an increasingly dark, adult story.

Unfortunately, the second half of the play takes an extreme turn away from this conceit. In an attempt to infuse the play with both commentary and poetry, Doss and Wills go a bit too far with the metatextual winking that peppers the play, crossing over from self-referential to self-reverential. This is a shame, because Doss is clearly skilled enough to infuse the play with the messages she is trying to get across without having to resort to such heavy-handed techniques.

Though uneven in its second half, “Catalina de Erauso” is certainly an interesting experiment. Fueled by a broadly talented cast and a distinctive performance venue, it raises vital questions how we can relate — and relate to — history through the veils of fiction and theater.

“Catalina de Erauso”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Sept. 30
Where: Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, 8604 FM 969
Cost: $15-$25
Information: 512-686-6621, paperchairs.com

 

Timely play about Trump Era makes it to UT

A 90-minute drama about America after an envisioned President Donald Trump impeachment opens at the University of Texas on Wednesday. A public conversation follows on Sept. 7.

SEE FULL STORY HERE.

David Sitler plays Rick and Franchelle Stewart Dorn plays Gloria in “Building the Wall.” Contributed by Lawrence Peart

Here’s a peek at my story about Robert Schenkkan‘s “Building the Wall.” —

As timely as the latest political scandal, “Building the Wall” issued like a blaze of lighting from the mind of Robert Schenkkan, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who grew up in Austin.

The 90-minute, two-person drama about America after an envisioned impeachment of President Donald Trump has its regional premiere at the University of Texas on Thursday and runs through Sept. 10. A public conversation will take place on Sept. 7 at the Brockett Theatre.

Not that long ago, “Building the Wall” was barely a sketch of an idea in Schenkkan’s mental notebook. Yet possessed by the play’s force, he wrote it expeditiously in October, just before the presidential election.

Multiple theaters picked it up immediately, and it reached New York on May 24, which in theatrical terms is like an overnight turnaround. That run was short-lived, but a Los Angeles version was extended several times, and other productions have opened or are in rehearsals around the world.

“I felt the moment was urgent,” Schenkkan says. “It was good to see that as an artist I could respond quickly and that my community would join me. I met so many different artists at different theaters all over the country, institutions I didn’t know, or only knew by reputation, and everybody who participated in this did so with tremendous enthusiasm and excitement because they, too, felt the urgency of the moment and the need to do something, to respond to this extraordinary political crisis.”

Science fiction tale deliver powerful real-life messages about race

In the wake of the Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist rally and the subsequent attack on peaceful counterprotesters, the firm belief that black lives matter is perhaps more important than it has ever been. As such, the long-term work being done at the Vortex Theatre to bring diversity to the Austin stage, and to provide a voice and a venue to artists of color, is more important than ever.

Contributed by by Errich Petersen.

The latest show at the Vortex, produced by Gale Theatre Co., is Tyler English-Beckwith’s new play “Twentyeight.” Though ostensibly an Afrofuturist science fiction story about six black people forced to build the very spaceship that will take them to their promised utopia of the Liberian Space Station, “Twentyeight” is also a trenchant commentary about contemporary state and racial violence against the black community.

Set in either a dystopian near-future or an alternate present, “Twentyeight” embodies the struggle for survival and freedom faced by black Americans in the form of forced labor to build a new starship. In exchange for this labor — which is overseen by mysterious “Enforcers” who make themselves known in the form of loud klaxon alarms — the individuals building the starship will be allowed to board it when it launches for the space station.

The bulk of the play portrays the struggles faced by the six characters as they work on the spaceship, arguing among themselves about the roles of freedom, yearning and expectation. The talented ensemble — consisting of Kenah Benefield, Jeremy Rashad Brown, Mae Rose Hill, Delanté Keys, Taji Senior-Gipson and Oktavea Williams — embody the various sides of debates about whether it is necessary for minorities to crouch before they are allowed to fly, and the well-realized desires and beliefs of each character keep that from ever becoming simply intellectual.

Though the ideas (and ideology) of “Twentyeight” are part of the show’s great strength, some of the science fiction concepts are a bit muddled and confusing, perhaps intentionally so. Nevertheless, the staging of the action by co-directors English-Beckwith and Matrix Kilgore (aided by the work of lighting designer Rachel Atkinson, sound designer Alyssa Dillard and scenic designer Ann Marie Gordon) grounds each scene in a physical reality that expresses the emotional truth of the characters, even if the precise location of the action is unclear.

“Twentyeight,” like much of the work at the Vortex, is a necessary show for our contemporary moment, giving voice to ideas that need to be heard by more people if our society is ever to find its way to the stars.

“Twentyeight”
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 16-19
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road
Cost: $15-$35
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org.

Elvis, Johnny Cash and more come to life in Zach’s ‘Million Dollar Quartet’

On Dec. 4, 1956, the tiny Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, was the site of a seminal moment in the history of rock ‘n’ roll: the recording of a jam session between rockabilly superstars Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. This recording session became known as the “Million Dollar Quartet,” catching all four artists at a crucial time when rock music was just starting to take America by storm.

Zach Theatre has taken on the Tony Award-winning musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” about famous faces Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Contributed by Charles Quinn

In 2006, a fictionalized version of that remarkable moment was turned into a jukebox musical by writer/director Floyd Mutrux, along with co-writer Colin Escott. Combining the music of the four artists, along with covers of a few other rock hits and some of the gospel music that was actually recorded that day, “Million Dollar Quartet” is as much a musical revue as it is a play.

The show’s music is almost entirely diegetic, coming from the performers on stage re-creating the recording session, and thus all four actors portraying the famous musicians need to be able to embody the roles sonically as well as physically. Fortunately, Zach Theatre’s new production features four leading men who are more than up to the task.

Rockabilly songwriter and recording artist Cole (who goes by just one name) is spot-on as a young, suave, top-of-his-career Elvis, whose bombastic physicality while performing is nicely offset by Cole’s subtle evocation of the King’s nervous stutter in conversation. Gavin Rohrer is a ball of manic energy as Lewis, riding the line between “bad boy” and “snot-nosed punk” while remaining just on the right side of likable. Corbin Mayer’s deep bass voice and quiet brooding, paired with a razor-sharp performing style, evoke the darker tones of Cash. Finally, the young Billy Cohen takes on Perkins’ cool stability and mean rhythm and blues guitar licks with a soulful energy that pairs well with the extravagant, impressive bass-playing of Adam Egizi as Brother Jay, Perkins’ brother and musical partner.

The cast is rounded out by Zachary Yanez as drummer Fluke, Emily Farr as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne (replacing his real-life girlfriend of the time, Marilyn Evans), and Jeff Jeffers as Sam Phillips, Sun Records’ owner and the producer of early recordings by all four men. Farr is buoyant and sexy in the few numbers given to her to sing, though she is somewhat hobbled by a text that mostly seems to have use for her as a plot contrivance for the sake of exposition.

Jeffers, however, has far more to work with, as Phillips is arguably the protagonist of the show’s sparse storyline. Given several moments to shine, he quietly serves as the play’s backbone, with a reserved performance that brings some heart to what would otherwise be a disconnected collection of songs. Director Dave Steakley wisely keeps him at the center of the action in order to hold the story together, even though his role is far less showy than that of the four rock superstars.

As a text, “Million Dollar Quartet” is very flawed. It has sparse narrative momentum and even less structure, and in its celebration of these four particular musicians it pays extremely short shrift to the role of African-American musicians in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. However, Zach’s production of the show uses Jeffers’ willfully modest performance to tie together a series of knockout impersonations, high-energy performances and dynamite rockabilly songs to create a fun evening of toe-tapping, hand-clapping entertainment.

“Million Dollar Quartet”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 3
Where: Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: $29-$81
Information: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org

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