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'Million Dollar Quartet' is solid gold

The vintage rock 'n' roll in Oregon Cabaret Theatre's "Million Dollar Quartet" is enough to bring any house to its feet.

The show opens with a rousing interpretation of "Blue Suede Shoes," performed by Christopher Wren, William Boyajian, Jared Freiburg and Christopher Fordinal in the roles of rock 'n' roll and country legends Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.

It's nearly Christmas in 1956 in Memphis, Tennessee. The four men are at Sun Records recording studio with producer Sam Phillips, played by Galloway Stevens. Perkins is rehearsing new music, and Phillips has brought young, up-and-comer Lewis in to help beef up the sound. Cash, Presley and his girlfriend, Dyanne, drop by for a listen. Or so it would seem.

What follows is an impromptu jam session caught on tape that was released in Europe years later, 1981 to be exact, as "The Million Dollar Quartet," with such tracks as "Real Wild Child," "Who Do You Love," "Fever," sung by Dyanne, and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man." When additional tracks were discovered, they were released as "The Complete Million Dollar Session." Finally, in 1990, the tracks were released in the U.S. as "Elvis Presley: The Million Dollar Quartet."

The session is an important one in the history of American music, but on this particular day, business is at hand. Perkins and Cash have enjoyed a successful run with Sun Records, but they feel ready to move on. Presley is not keen on Las Vegas and wants to return to the label, and Lewis is champing at the bit for a shot at fame. And the pressure is on because RCA wants an answer to its offer to buy out Phillips and Sun Records by the end of the day.

Directed by Todd Neilsen, the four lead actors obviously enjoy themselves in the roles of the famous quartet, as does singer Alyssa Birrer who plays Dyanne. Who wouldn't want to sing at that session? Darby Uspensky and Jared Brown round out the cast as the studio's rhythm section — acoustic bassist Brother Jay and drummer Fluke.

The four certainly studied their characters. Wren is a strong electric-guitar player and imitates the memorable knee kicks Perkins made during his live performances. Boyajian, who is also the show's musical director, captures the spiritual and darker sides of Cash, along with the way the "Man in Black" handled a guitar, and has a great voice for Cash's tunes.

Standouts are Freiburg and Fordinal. Freiburg captures Lewis' bawdy wildness, and Fordinal Presley's humbleness and iconic stage moves.

The four actors accompany themselves playing their own instruments throughout the show, though it seemed Fordinal was playing Boyajian's acoustic guitar parts. At one point, Boyajian began strumming a song before the others took their cues, and no sound emerged from his instrument.

There is humor in the script's one-liners that are taken directly from the singers' hit songs, and, as vocalists, the foursome delivered a beautiful four-part harmony on "Down by the Riverside" at the end of the first act.

As the drama in this Tony Award-winning musical — with book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux — reveals some of the famous performers' secrets and angst, it's the music that pushes the story forward. I was grateful the script didn't explore Cash and Presley's drug addictions. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Look for excerpts and full-length renditions of some of their biggest hits, "Matchbox," "Folsom Prison Blues," "That's All Right," "I Walk the Line," "I Hear You Knocking," sung by Birrer, "Hound Dog," "Ghost Riders" and more at this "hillbilly hoedown." The playbill lists about 20 songs that are knit together to celebrate the men's contributions to America's music industry ... and how much we love them.

DeAnne Kennedy's set design takes us into a colorful space that is the recording studio, decorated with gold records produced with Phillips at the helm, and costume designer Mary Claflin's sequined jackets are reminiscent of the singers' glory days. Lighting is by Chris Wood and sound by Michael Mulhall.

"Million Dollar Quartet" runs through April 15 at Oregon Cabaret Theatre. Tickets are available at oregoncabaret.com or by calling 541-488-2902. Reservations are required for dinner or brunch before shows. Appetizers, beverages and desserts are available without reservations.

— Reach Tempo editor Laurie Heuston at lheuston@rosebudmedia.com.

Darby Uspensky, left, Jared Freiburg, Christopher Wren, Christopher Fordinal, Jared Brown and William Boyajian appear in Oregon Cabaret's 'Million Dollar Quartet.' [Photo by Bryon DeVore]