COHOES – There are musicals like “Hello Dolly” that exist for pure entertainment. There are other musicals like “Jersey Boys” and “Beautiful,” that combine a compelling story with terrific music.
Then there are shows like “Jerry Lee Lewis versus Jerry Lee Lewis” in which great musical performances are lessened by a story-line that is shallow and confusing.
“Jerry Lee Lewis versus Jerry Lee Lewis,” which is presented by Playhouse Stage Company through March 8, at Cohoes Music Hall, works as a great tribute concert. When the songs “Great Balls of Fire,” “Chantilly Lace,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and Cold, Cold Heart” are performed, the musical soars. But once the show tries to show the persona of the title character, things slow down to point of collapse. If you leave a show knowing little more about the title character than when you walked in, that’s a jukebox musical, not a biographical musical.
One of the play’s major failings is there is not one, but two title characters. Besides Lewis there is his alter-ego named The Killer, which was Lewis’s nickname. The point of the character, who always offers Lewis bad advice, is never made clear. Is The Killer the subliminal side of Lewis; the part of him that causes him to always make bad decisions? Or is it a way of showing that the reason for Lewis’s problems was that he was a schizophrenic personality? The only positive contribution the character makes is that the double piano playing adds energy to an already energetic show.
“Jerry Lee Lewis versus Jerry Lee Lewis” is a fantastic tribute show that features about 20 songs – all expertly and excitingly performed. Indeed, the show ends with a six-song mini-concert that closes with “Whole Lot of Shakin’ (Going On).” Throughout the 20-minute segment, the audience was on its feet, doing its share of shakin’ while dancing, singing and having a great time. Few people left the Cohoes Music Hall not on a high.
But unfortunately, between the other 14 songs there is very little of interest going on. The biographical aspect of Lewis’s troubled life is offered as a thumbnail sketch. It touches on many scandals. His being thrown out of a Christian school for embracing the devil’s music, by playing rock and roll at an assembly concert. It alludes to his drinking and medication problems and the time he shot his own bass player in the chest. Mostly it dwells on the scandal that nearly wrecked his career. His marriage to his 13 year old cousin, Myra.
Problematic is that the story tends to whitewash Lewis’s behavior. For example, while defending his marriage to Myra, the show suggests she was the aggressor and he a shy person. What is glossed over is, she became his third wife. At the time of the wedding, he was still married to number two. (He had seven wives in total.)
My disappointment is that we feel and experience the piano playing genius of Jerry Lee Lewis but never get to understand how his childhood and personal life shaped his passion for music. A fact not mentioned is his poor parents mortgaged their farm to provide their prodigy with a proper piano so he could nurture his talent. The point is that there is no connection between a tumultuous life and the creation of tumultuous music which helped shape the new musical genre of rock and roll.
Jefferson McDonald wrote the play and stars as Lewis. McDonald is a man of exceptional talent, who has been closely associated with performing Jerry Lee Lewis for several years, mostly in the musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” It is not surprising his view of the character is sympathetic. That it is an almost censured version is not good; that it lacks drama is worse.
The Killer is played by Sean McGibbon, another exceptional talent who played Jerry Lee Lewis in the first national tour of “Million Dollar Quartet.” He is a total entertainer and an exciting, adventurous pianist.
The production is helped by a terrific three piece on-stage band. Marina Laurendi is sensational as a performer and in her portrayal of Myra and as the other women in Lewis’s life. Parker Cross plays several stern father figures that were influences in Lewis’s life.
This is the first world-premiere offered by Playhouse Stage Company. It is filled with musical success, ambition and hopefully a lesson that a strong, honest book is necessary for a successful musical.
“Jerry Lee Lewis versus Jerry Lee Lewis” is produced by Playhouse Stage Company at Cohoes Music Hall, Cohoes through March 8. It is joined in repertory with “Lady Sings the Blues” on February 27. For tickets and schedule information call 518-434-0776 or go to playhousestagecompany.com
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.