I don’t know about you, but I’m a Christmas-Music-After-Thanksgiving-and-Not-Halloween kind of person.. This isn't to say I’m a Grinch or a Scrooge; it's more that I find the charm of the holidays best enjoyed in smaller doses. Thankfully, the Timber Lake Playhouse’s most recent production Million Dollar Quartet Christmas, directed by Tim Seib, offers a rousing alternative to typical Christmas fare.
There’s not a plot so much as there is a setup. In real life, on December 4, 1956 (67 years to the day of this article's publication!), Carl Perkins (Collin Yates), Jerry Lee Lewis (Brady Wease), Johnny Cash (Peter Oyloe), and Elvis Presley (Alessandro Gian Viviano) got together in Memphis to record a Christmas album. That event was dramatized and turned into the jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet, which actually features no Christmas tunes whatsoever, and instead picks highlights from each icon’s catalog to make the show about its stars. This musical, written by the same author (Colin Escott), skews closer to reality, though still eschews it. The track list differs from that of the actual album, but the show does now feature Christmas music.
Million Dollar Quartet Christmas' entire action takes place in real-time within Sun Record Studios during the recording session. The band members joke around, jam, and occasionally break the fourth wall to talk to the audience directly and speak about their past or their families. These asides are useful for those in the audience (ahem, myself) who are unfamiliar with the specifics of each star’s career. Also joining the quartet in-studio are fellow musicians W.S. “Fluke” Holland (Mike Lucchetti) on drums, Brother Jay (Clay Arthur) on double bass, station owner Sam Phillips (Zachary Tate), and Presley’s then-girlfriend Dyanne (Taylor Kraft). There’s gift giving, discussion about contracts and record deals, and some slight tension here and there, but it’s all really about the music.
And oh, the music! There are no tracks employed in Seib's production, as everything is played live – and so freaking wonderfully. It’s hard to know where to begin with my praise, but I may as well start with Wease’s portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis: It’s infectious. Part of me wants to say that he was playing that piano, but it honestly felt more like the piano was playing him. That, coupled with his good-natured Southern charm, meant that I had a huge grin on my face anytime the tale focused on him.
Yates brings life to Carl Perkins, along with some electrifying guitar playing. Oyloe also does a great job as Johnny Cash, though Cash is arguably the least “rock star” of the four rock stars, He provides a nice counterpoint to the humongous personalities. Kraft gets a few numbers throughout the evening so that things don’t become a total sausage fest, and beyond that, she lends poise and charm to her character. Everyone in the cast gets at least one moment to stand out, if not several. Heck, even Arthur is given a chance to shine, at one point performing a solo while standing on the very instrument he's playing!
Last, and certainly not least, is Viviano’s Elvis Presley, who is the genuine article. I’ve seen a handful of Presley impersonators in my years, and none hold a Blue Suede Shoe to the talent on display here. He’s got the voice, the pelvis gyrations, the charm – everything you could want from the King and more. Early on in the show, Viviano sings “Blue Christmas.” No sooner did the first note pour out of his mouth than the woman immediately behind me let out a huge gasp and say, “Oh, wow!” I wholeheartedly agreed.
The overall production is technically proficient, with some solid lighting design by Kammi Kringle and scenic design by Dan Danielowski. Seib stages the action in ways in which the focus is always obvious and the action clear to follow. Additionally, this is the first time I’ve seen a Timber Lake show where the turntable hasn’t been utilized, and it was a pleasant change of pace. This is one of those plays in which less is more, with its musical highlights including the aforementioned “Blue Christmas,” “Cottontop,” “Silent Night” (accompanied by some gorgeous lighting), “Mele Kalikimaka,” and “Jingle Bells.” Yes, really. “Jingle Bells.”
Other than an oddly abrupt ending to the first act and some mic issues that were resolved early on, Friday’s performance left me with very little to grumble about. The Timber Lake Playhouse’s most recent production is a wonderful evening out for those who both love and tolerate Christmas music. And regardless of your stance on holiday songs, if you’re a fan of Elvis, you will most definitely leave the theatre saying, “Thank you, thank you very much.”
Million Dollar Quartet Christmas runs at the Timber Lake Playhouse (8215 Black Oak Road, Mt. Carroll IL) through December 10, and more information and tickets are available by calling (815)244-2035 and visiting TimberLakePlayhouse.org.