The prohibition against falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is a widely familiar tenet of American law. But the Supreme Court just might have to make an exception for Aurora’s Paramount Theatre, where “Million Dollar Quartet” is erupting in “Great Balls of Fire.” For this production is about nothing less than that major conflagration in music history known as rock ‘n’ roll. And the “perpetrators” include Elvis Presley; Carl Perkins; Johnny Cash; that fiery, piano-pounding upstart from Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, as they all would agree, a long line of African-American musicians who inspired them, most notably Chuck Berry.
‘MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET’
When: Through Oct. 29
Where: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
Tickets: $36 – $64
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
“Million Dollar Quartet,” the virtuosic jukebox musical with a book by Colin Escott (who conceived the show) and Floyd Mutrux, played in Chicago for more than 2,500 performances between 2008 and 2016, first at the Goodman Theatre, but for most of the time on the intimate Apollo Theatre stage. Now, framed by the Broadway-size proscenium of Aurora’s Paramount Theatre, the show not only maintains that intimacy, but simultaneously erupts with the larger-than-life musical electricity and emotional heat its story demands. In fact, the show feels as if it has found its proper scale.
More impressively, under Jim Corti’s beautifully calibrated direction, the events that unfold on the fateful night of Dec. 4, 1956 — as Presley, Perkins, Cash and Lewis record together for the first and last time in producer Sam Phillips’ fabled Sun Records studio in Memphis — is rendered with absolute clarity. And the bravura individual talents and personalities of these men, their fierce competitive natures, their sense of the cultural revolution they were fomenting, and the tension between art and commerce they continually struggled with is made crystal clear. Corti, backed every beat of the way by his sensational cast and the work of music director Kory Danielson, sees to it that this “Million Dollar Quartet” is not just a breathtaking display of virtuosity and giddy excitement, but also a compelling human drama.
The multi-talented actor-musicians here are uniformly brilliant. Kavan Hashemian (who has performed as Elvis since the age of 3) brings the ideal crooning voice and rubbery moves to Presley. Adam Wesley Brown, a singer-songwriter with Kentucky roots and Broadway and Shakespearean credits, brings a compelling vocal warmth and guitar sound to Perkins, who is hungry for a comeback and still resentful about being eclipsed by Presley (who covered Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and subsequently seemed to get credit for writing it). And as the man in black, Bill Scott Sheets, a trained operatic baritone, uses his formidable voice, with its uncanny Cash-like timbre, to astonishing effect.
Of course it is Lewis, that “rockabilly Liberace” whose acrobatics on the piano keys (and antics on the instrument itself) make him the most flamboyant character on stage. And the rail-thin, fabulously agile Gavin Rohrer, a true keyboard magician, nails the upstart who might have made a roof-raising preacher but knew he was far better suited to play “the devil’s music,” with all the “temptation, fornication and damnation” that came with it. And while true, it might be hard to top the men’s Berry tribute (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”) and all the other classics, from “Hound Dog” and “Let’s Have a Party” to “Folsom Prison Blues,” “That’s Alright Mama” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” something special happens when they join on such songs as the mournful “Peace in the Valley” and a stirring “Down by the Riverside.”
Nicholas Harazin brings impressive depth to the role of Phillips, the man with a special gift for shaping talent. As Presley’s girlfriend, Dyanne, Courtney Mack brings palpable sizzle, smarts and glamor to her renditions of “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.” And upright bassist Zach Lentino and percussionist Scott Simon are more than bravura musicians.
Kevin Depinet’s set is a masterpiece — a lifesize cutaway replica of Sun Studios, with a giant Memphis water tower and guitar (fittingly suspended from an electrical pole) looming above it — and with Jesse Klug’s lighting and Sally Dolembo’s costumes adding pizzazz. All in all, a matchbox of a production.