On December 4, 1956, the first supergroup of rock and roll appeared at Sun Records. On that day, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Carl Perkins all happened to be at Sun Records at the same time and had an impromptu jam session recorded by Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips. Inspired by that day, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux wrote a little show about what might have gone on in the studio. They called it Million Dollar Quartet and it is playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.
To be honest, I was expecting a jukebox musical when I sat down to review this show, but Escott and Mutrux actually wrote a nifty little story that segues nicely into the evening’s showstopping numbers. It’s fun, actually delves a bit into the characters of Phillips and the Million Dollar Quartet, and is even a little sad and haunting at certain points. This strong tale is strengthened by the legendary hits as performed by a powerhouse cast who hit all the right notes musically and acting-wise.
Paul Kerr has directed a real winner with this production. He sets a snappy pace, wonderfully stages the show, and pulls some exceptionally strong performances out of his actors. Kerr has a good grip on the true depth of this story and hits all of its emotional beats with maximum impact.
Kerr’s cast is stellar from top to bottom. Each fully understands his or her character and each also happens to be a darn good singer and instrumentalist.
I’d like to give special notice to the unsung heroes of this show: Sean Powell and Darren Johnston. Powell does double duty as the show’s musical director and in the small role of Jay Perkins. As musical director, Powell’s work is superb as he and the cast don’t miss a trick in any of the night’s numbers. He also does well in the role of Jay, Carl Perkins’ older brother. Powell brings a real presence to the role and brings a natural flamboyance to it, not to mention some dynamite strumming on and skillful acrobatics with his stand up bass. Johnston fuels all of the numbers with a deadly accurate backbeat as the session drummer, Fluke.
While all of the actors are great, Billy Rude may be the one to keep your eye on with his frenzied performance as Jerry Lee Lewis. Rude’s Lewis has a natural gift for rubbing people the wrong way and has a self-confidence bordering on arrogance as he struggles to achieve stardom as Sun Record’s newest artist. Rude’s ability with the piano borders on the superhuman as I had difficulty following his fingers as they blitzed across the keys. He didn’t just play the singer known as “The Killer”, he became him as he perfectly emulated his over the top piano playing right down to kicking away the piano bench and having that hairstyle that gets just as wild as his performances in “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’”.
Sean Riley brings a surprising amount of pathos to the role of Carl Perkins. Perkins was the first breakout star of Sun Records, but has hit a bit of a slump and is feeling overlooked by Sam Phillips. Riley brings a bit of bitter frustration to the role as he is a bit of a curmudgeon who is only really close with Johnny Cash. Lewis irritates him and he harbors a lot of resentment and jealousy towards Elvis who not only supplanted him on the charts, but became better known for Perkins’ hit song “Blue Suede Shoes” more than Perkins himself. Riley is also a master guitarist and singer who flies high in “Matchbox” and his sections in “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”.
You may think Johnny Cash has been reborn when you see Christopher Essex’s take on the Man in Black. He bears a remarkable physical similarity to the singer, effortlessly duplicates his unique style of guitar playing, and has a similar bass voice. Essex ably plays Cash as a gentle man of faith wrestling with the problem of telling Phillips he’s leaving the label. He also shines in classic Cash numbers such as “I Walk the Line” and “Down By the Riverside”.
I really liked Courtney Crouse’s take on Elvis Presley. He managed to show Elvis’ congeniality which people often forget about. By displaying this side of Elvis’ personality, he shows us that the King was actually too nice for the cutthroat world of show business as he is often pushed around by Colonel Parker and his new record label, RCA. But Crouse also reminds us that Elvis was a versatile performer almost without peer as he rocks out with “Hound Dog” then just as easily goes Gospel with “Peace in the Valley”.
After Bradley Farmer, as Elvis’ girlfriend, Dyanne, belted out “Fever” with that sultry alto, I needed to go soak my head in a bucket of ice water to cool off. Ms Farmer gets a lot of mileage out of this small role who ends up serving as the confidante of nearly every character in the show. Ms Farmer adds that extra something to the show whether it be singing or dancing to the numerous numbers or boosting the beat with her tambourine.
Last and certainly not least is Eddie Urish’s beautiful turn as Sam Phillips. As the narrator of this tale, Urish presents Phillips as the grizzled record producer who built tiny Sun Records into a starmaking factory by recognizing rock and roll for the revolution it was and seeing the talent in future stars that other labels wouldn’t glance twice at. I loved the loyalty that Urish gives to Phillips because it made his pain at watching the Quartet dissolve around him all the more believable and moving.
Todd Davison’s set is phenomenal as it has the perfect flavor of the former auto parts store now turned into a hitmaking machine. Reymundo Montoya’s properties complete the picture of Davison’s set. Shon Causer’s lighting adds a je ne sais quoi to the story as it changes from the brightness of the jam session to the dark blue of Phillips’ narration.
Believe me when I say you’re going to get more than a million bucks worth of entertainment out of this show. The story is strong. The performances are terrific. The music is legendary. Buckle up and enjoy the ride of this show.
Million Dollar Quartet plays at Maples Repertory Theatre through July 9. Showtimes are at 7:30pm on June 28 and July 7-8; 2pm on June 25, 27, 30 and July 5 and 9. Tickets cost $29 for the Main Floor and $22 for the balcony. For tickets contact the box office at 660-385-2924 or visit the website at www.maplesrep.com. Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.