It's not every day that a theater critic is compelled to toss aside his carefully cultivated, urbane demeanor in favor of a staple phrase of gushing enthusiasm from the internet. But then, "Million Dollar Quartet," the latest offering from Oregon Cabaret Theatre, is no everyday show.
It is so tightly and professionally run that it's our opinion (and you heard it here first) that "Million Dollar Quartet" is a show that will take the Cabaret Theatre out of their current position as a leading regional venue and bring them towards more national recognition — a venue that will, and should, become as much a part of your annual theater destination calendar as the nearby Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
In December of 1956, a team of "up-and-coming musical dynamos" happened to converge at Sun Records Studio in Memphis. The four were Elvis Presley (Christopher Fordinal), Johnny Cash (William Boyajian), Carl Perkins (Christopher Wren), and Jerry Lee Lewis (Jared Freiburg).
Sensing a golden opportunity, Sun Records head honcho Sam Phillips (Galloway Stevens), cajoled the talented group into an impromptu jam session. Elvis also brought along a gal pal named Marilyn Evans, who in this show is represented as Dyanne (Alyssa Birrer). The result of that spontaneous collaboration became a seminal moment in music history, commemorated in a 17-track album under the same title as this show.
And what a show it is.
All of the cast members — many of them new additions to the Cabaret family — are exceptionally talented. They gyrate, sing and sweat their way through a series of wonderful 1950s hits like "Who Do You Love," "Long Tall Sally" and "Great Balls of Fire." Within 10 minutes of the show starting, audience members were bopping in their seats and getting giddy in their participation. By the end of the night, most had jumped to their feet repeatedly, yelling and whistling with delight. The sheer velocity of the performers on stage was a sight to behold; it's probably going to be another sellout show for OCT (if it hasn't sold out already).
As Presley, Christopher Fordinal cuts a striking figure with his rockabilly hairstyle and infectious gyrations. Fordinal is a formidable Elvis, with a curled lip and twanging guitar. He quite literally seduces the audience, at one point using a scarf to charm and ensnare a patron in the front row.
As Cash, William Boyajian is outstanding. Boyajian, with his deep baritone and swaggering demeanor, compellingly recreates the Man in Black. His renditions of "Folsom Prison Blues" and Merle Travis's "Sixteen Tons" are gooseflesh-inducingly good.
As Perkins, Christopher Wren is stellar in his blue suede shoes, with a great voice and playing a mean guitar. Wren was in the national tour of "Million Dollar Quartet" and it shows; he has a deep affinity with his character and conveys Perkins's musical style and personality with aplomb.
In his role as Jerry Lee Lewis, Jared Freiburg is the probably the greatest thing in a show filled with great performances. Freiburg, in his first appearance at Cabaret, is a force of nature. He is a stunningly talented pianist, skillfully channeling the "Killer" instinct into a jaw-dropping and athletic performance. Beating the upright piano on which he plays as though it owes him money, Freiburg uses hands and feet, head and tail to assault the poor instrument again and again as he pirouettes through a morass of high-energy numbers like a premier danseur. He puts not a foot or finger wrong for the duration of the show — it's pretty hard to keep your eyes off of this dazzling newcomer.
Playing Sam Phillips, Galloway Stevens is an excellent anchoring presence at the center of the storm that is created by all the big egos in the room. Stevens has a great gift for settling and wrangling the other actors onstage; he remains a discreetly generous actor of exceptional talent.
Floating like a Champagne cork on this sea of male testosterone is the perennially elegant and effervescent Alyssa Michelle Birrer playing Dyanne. While Marilyn Evans was an opaque presence in the original sessions, the character of Dyanne is no shrinking violet. Birrer seizes the role with enthusiasm; her Shirley Bassey-esque rendition of "Fever" (the signature song of Peggy Lee) is a slinky homage to the torch song tradition.
Backing up the lead artists are Darby Spence on standing bass and Jared Brown on drums. Both musicians are right on target and wonderful to watch.
"Million Dollar Quartet" is a swashbuckling, mile-a-minute, white-hot extravaganza filled to the brim with astonishing talent, wonderfully addictive musical numbers, fabulous costumes and killer sound design. Grab your favorite wild child and walk the line down to Oregon Cabaret. You shouldn't miss this one.
Million Dollar Quartet continues through April 15 at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, 241 Hargadine St. in Ashland.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.