Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
By Geary Danihy
What we have out at the Ivoryton Playhouse right now is what might be called the mother of all juke box musicals (for those not familiar with the term, it means a musical with a thin book created to showcase musical numbers). Million Dollar Quartet, which is based on a true event, captures the music, and some of the tension, when four juke box idols — Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins — all found themselves at the studios of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis, TN, in late December of 1956. Elvis had already left Phillips to sign with RCA and Cash and Perkins were about to break the news that they were moving to Columbia Records, while Lewis just wanted to become a star. Setting aside differences and egos, they play a lot of music — and there you have the story and the premise of the show.
As with all juke box musicals, much of your enjoyment will be determined by your association and familiarity with the era from which the music is drawn (and your response to it when it was current). Since we’re talking the 50s here, we’re talking Boomers, many of whom are now receiving Social Security checks. For some theater-goers, references may not register. For example, Elvis’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show — many of us saw that “historic” event while others may ask, “Who the hell is Ed Sullivan?” Then there’s Lewis’s references to his romantic proclivities — his career almost ended when he married his 13-year-old second cousin. So, what if you’re not tuned into the era of the rise of rockabilly? Is the show still worth the price of admission? Absolutely.
Million Dollar Quartet, which opened on Broadway in 2010 and ran for over 400 performances, is pure energy and captures the essence of an era, a seismic change from the staid (some might say self-satisfied) early 50s to a more troubled yet expressive society. The songs, over 20 of them, are driven by want, need, rebellion and, most of all, sexual desire (well, “Great Balls of Fire!”), with a little dose of religion (“Walk that Lonesome Valley/I Shall Not be Moved”) to provide a sanctified overlay and a sense of the tent revival ancestry of a lot of the music. As directed and choreographed by Sherry Lutken, with a book by Colin Scott and Floyd Mutrux, this two-hour show pulsates with essentially non-stop music.
Overseeing the proceedings is Phillips, played by Ben Hope. He sets the stage, provides back stories, and often introduces the musical numbers, many of which will be familiar, even if you’re not a Boomer, for they have entered the canon of American songdom. What is also familiar are the personas and voices — Cash, Lewis, Presley and (perhaps less so) Perkins. In staging a show like this, you have to take into account the inevitable audience question: “Does he sound like…?” Well, in this production the answer is yes…and no.
The most iconic of the quartet is, of course, Presley. John Rochette certainly has the moves, but there’s a certain animal growl missing from his voice, a low rumble that made female hearts tremble (and fathers fume). He sells the songs with style, but there’s just something missing.
As Perkins, Luke Darnell doesn’t have as much of an ingrained image to deal with. Hence, his performance is straightforward rockabilly — and the man sure can play the guitar. So, too, can Jeremy Sevelovitz as Johnny Cash, and he nicely captures the dark, gravelly voice of the country singer. Then there’s Joe Callahan as Jerry Lee Lewis, the class clown of the quartet. Callahan beats the hell out of the eighty-eights and gives us a manic Lewis that captures the essence of the man’s persona. Their efforts are backed by Brother Jay (Kroy Presley) on bass and Fluke (Jamie Pittle) on drums.
If there’s one quibble about the production (and it’s not the fault of Ivoryton), it’s that Emily Mattheson as Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne, gets only two numbers: “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.” She nails both songs and I don’t think there was a person in the audience who would have objected to her taking center stage for several more. Perhaps the folks at Ivoryton will take note and work to bring her back in a role that showcases her talents.
All in all, Million Dollar Quartet is an enjoyable two hours of rock-and-roll nostalgia. For those of an age, it will bring back memories of a time when the world was changing (which it always does) and they were young…and often rebellious (yes your grandmother once swooned and screamed as Elvis gyrated and your grandfather was fixated on combing his hair so that a curl fell over his forehead).
Million Dollar Quartet runs through June 25. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.