Musicalfare Theatre has done it again.
Earlier this season they presented music of the great Duke Ellington in “Sophisticasted Ladies.” This time it is foot stompin’, hand clappin’, hip shakin’ 1950s rock 'n' roll in “Million Dollar Quartet.” What a blast! Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis all in the same room at the same time in a jam session recorded at Sun Studio on December 4, 1956. Can you dig it, man?
“Million Dollar Quartet” is inspired by the events of that day, in which legendary producer Sam Phillips had all his boys together for the first and only time. Elvis had already signed with RCA, and was making movies as well as records – “the Hollywood Hillbilly” as Carl Perkins called him. Elvis came by for a visit with his girlfriend. Carl was recording “Matchbox,” and Phillips brought in Jerry Lee Lewis, his newest acquisition, to play piano. Johnny Cash stopped by to listen to Carl’s session. They all wound up laughing and singing, and that session was recorded (you can listen to it on Youtube). The play highlights their hits, not the recordings made that day, and tells a bit of the history of their early careers, and the huge part Sam Phillips and Sun Studio played when rock 'n' roll was just a baby.
I am not a musician, nor an expert in music in any sense of the word. I am more of a “Does it have a good beat and can you dance to it?” kind of fan. I love rock 'n' roll. I grew up with it listening to 45s, dancing to it at school and in kids’ basements, and taking the bus downtown to buy the latest records with my friends. Rock 'n' roll spoke to us in a way that nothing else did in our insular, blue collar, Catholic world. It was freedom and sex and soul, and it made us feel like we could be anything. We knew little about where the people creating it and singing it came from or its roots.
Since then I have learned a great deal more. This play tells us where these four musicians and Sam Phillips began – dirt poor and southern one and all – and what they created and accomplished musically in their early lives. “Million Dollar Quartet” gives us a window into who they were, plus we get to hear terrific early rock 'n' roll, as the actors do their best to personify each of them.
Brandon Barry as Carl Perkins and Joseph Donahue III as Jerry Lee Lewis are spectacular musicians, both formerly with The Albrights. Wow! And Wow! again. Barry’s rockabilly guitar literally sings, and in the intimate Musicalfare space, every chord and pick is clear to see and hear. He bends it with the best of them. He plays that guitar just like ringin’ a bell. Go, go, go Barry go.
If Jerry Lee Lewis weren’t already Jerry Lee Lewis, Donahue III could be him. He is manic, manic, manic as he tries to fit in with his more famous peers. He is great fun to watch, excellent comic relief, and his dizzying piano playing hits heights that would make Lewis proud. He comes very close to parody at times, which detracts a bit from his performance, but is very entertaining, and he plays and sings Lewis’s hits like "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" expertly. The sparring between Perkins and Lewis showcases Lewis’s bravado and Perkins’ frustration with his own position in the hierarchy at Sun.
Jeffrey Coyle as Sam Phillips looks and acts the part of the southern entrepreneur, hiding his smarts and his heart behind his good old boy persona, and never missing a trick. Well, almost never, as he finds out further into the show. It is not a stretch to picture him all sweaty in a white shirt in an old Ford driving around dusty southern towns, trunk full of records, talking local DJs into playing them, perhaps with a palm greased now and then. And Coyle also gives us a sense of Phillips’ ability to reach into the souls of his musicians and bring into the light what was hidden even from them.
Steve Copps as Elvis has all the moves and really brings it on in “Long Tall Sally” and “Hound Dog.” It cannot be easy to play an icon whose every gesture and hip thrust is known to almost everyone on the planet, but Copps handles it well, not falling into the trap of being merely a caricature of The King.
Andrew J. Reimers as Johnny Cash also has all the Cash moves, as well as facial expressions. He sings Cash’s recordings "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line" as Johnny himself might have. He was a bit rigid in early dialogue, but loosened up nicely as the evening progressed. Not that Cash himself ever seemed really loose, but Reimers became Cash-loose, so to speak.
Arianne Davidow as Dyanne, Elvis’s girlfriend, has a great voice and gets to belt out a couple of tunes on her own. Which is a good thing, as otherwise her character would have been there just to pretty up the joint and act as the feminine foil to Elvis’s feelings and to allow the other boys to express theirs, which may very well have been what her part really was on that fateful day. It being the 50s and all. The sessions band is rounded out by Brian McMahon on drums and Dave Siegfried on Bass/Fluke, both handling their instruments with expertise.
Direction is by Executive/Artistic Director Randall Kramer. His use of spotlit interludes as Phillips tells a story about one of the boys, or about his own experiences as head of Sun, is very effective. Lighting and sound design by Chris Cavanagh adds to the mood of the interludes. The studio is designed by Chris Schenk. It looks funky and well used. I liked all the whirring tapes and odd looking ancient recording equipment in the booth. Costume design by Kari Drozd and make-up by Susan Drozd give the characters very 50s looks, and highlights each of their unique styles.
And then there is the music itself, directed by Theresa Quinn, which really is the star of the show. She allows her musicians room for expression and highlights their strengths, which are many. It all makes for a rollicking good time.
“Million Dollar Quartet” gives us a slice of rock 'n' roll history and entertains us with great music from a seminal period in its early days. It is blast from the past, and you will be dancing in your seat and wanting to get up and boogie. Dig it?