World Premiere of “Jerry Lee Lewis Versus Jerry Lee Lewis” by Playhouse Stage Company, What a Thrill!
Playhouse Stage Company is taking an audacious gamble, presenting a World Premiere musical of a rock ’n’ roll legend written by an actor who played Jerry Lee Lewis in last season’s “Million Dollar Quartet” and it is paying off handsomely with a rollicking, intermittently thrilling, thoroughly enjoyable evening of new theater!
Jefferson McDonald has crafted his musical around the premise that there are two Jerry Lee Lewis’s at war with each other, one the tongue tied, somewhat bumbling naif who wants to serve the Lord which he plays and a dangerous, leering, provocative Killer (the incendiary Sean McGibbon) who goads Jerry Lee into new heights of ecstasy at the piano like the devil on Bugs’ shoulder in a Looney Tunes cartoon.
There is a host for the evening, Cowboy Jack Clement played by Parker Cross, who hectors the audience as they fill the historic Cohoes Music Hall and self-referentially narrates stops along the way of Lewis’s life. In this fashion, we get Lewis’s boyhood in Ferriday, Louisiana, his studies at the Southwestern Institute of Bible Studies in Waxahachie, Texas and of course, most sensationally his courting of his second cousin and third wife Myra (Heavenly Marina Laurendi) and their disastrous trip to London which nearly broke Lewis. Cross also plays Sam Phillips terrifically in the actor’s highlight of the night when Jerry Lee visits Sun Studios in 1956. I don’t know how much of the scene is scripted or improved but Cross is direct, funny and fast.
More of the life story could use this energy. Many of the book scenes need focus and tightening and there are stretches that are too long between the musical numbers to little effect. It’s a difficult call though which make World Premieres so fascinating because the interplay between the two Lewis’s and the audience is great fun. Laurendi is a great foil and contributes greatly with her musical numbers. “Blue Kentucky Girl” was especially lovely. She gets the off-color story which has to be experienced to be believed leading from a reporter’s question of Myra about cucumber sandwiches to an encounter with a relative in a vegetable patch back home. Bassist Tom McGrath also jumps into the story effectively as Myra’s father J.W. Brown.
The music is pretty freaking great and both McDonald and McGibbon besides competing with each other in seducing the audience, pelvic thrusts and egg sucking (you read that right) they complement challenge and elevate each other’s piano playing. There are wild antics at the piano with both benches kicked nearly offstage and the ivories pounded on by fingers, elbows, feet and asses. Besides the Lewis classics “Lewis Boogie,” “Whole Lotta’ Shaking Going On” and the immortal “Great Balls of Fire” there are the rock ’n’ roll classics “Johnny B. Goode,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” and traditional spirituals, of which “My God is Real” most effectively captures the inner struggle for Lewis that the playwright is getting at between praise and exultation. The evening ends explosively with a concert of the classics.
McDonald and McGibbon are fantastic together and it’s hard to imagine them having a better time on stage. You can see their joy playing with each other and the audience and the thrill will light you up inside. McGibbon is the more daring and has a natural comedian’s instinct while McDonald can capture your sympathies in a flash. I was thoroughly engaged by these two rock stars. Director Ben Williamson has done a great job reining them in and setting them loose. The onstage band of drummer Gene Garone and Paul Reepmeyer are also to be commended. “Jerry Lee Lewis vs. Jerry Lee Lewis” is far more than an experiment and with a little refinement could be a real barn burner. They ain’t faking, there’s a whole lotta shaking going on.