The audience was on its feet at Ivoryton Playhouse as they sang along and danced in the aisles, showing that they loved just about every minute of the rollicking and rocking musical “Million Dollar Quartet”, playing through June 25.
The show, written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, depicts the fateful night of Dec. 4, 1956, when four music legends, Carl Perkins (Luke Darnell), Jerry Lee Lewis (Joe Callahan), Elvis Presley (John Rochette), and Johnny Cash (Jeremy Sevelovitz), ended up together at Sun Records in Memphis.
Perkins, Presley, and Cash had already established names for themselves and Lewis was not too far behind.
The meeting would have never happened if it wasn’t for the man who discovered all four of them, Sun Records’ owner Sam Phillips (Ben Hope). This story is as much his as it is his artists.
At this point in time, Phillips had already sold Presley’s contract to RCA Records for $40,000 in order to keep Sun Records running. Now he is on the verge of losing Cash as well, whose contract expires at the end of the year.
That is as extensive the plot really gets. As nice of a brief history lesson it is, the real reason people come to see this show is the music and thankfully, Director Sherry Lutkin has picked a talented cast of actors who can bring justice to the musical capabilities of their namesakes and give a little bit of depth to characters in an otherwise anemic story.
The actors who portray the four musicians are all great. Darnell lands Perkins’ guitar licks and properly creates subtext for his character who is afraid of losing his popularity because of younger, more raucous talents like Lewis and Presley, who are getting more press.
Rochette has the hip-twisting swagger of Presley, but a recent illness has left his voice a little weak. Hopefully he’ll be better soon and get some more muscle behind his songs.
Sevelovitz, though unable to get the Cash drawl right, nails his signature shotgun-esque style of guitar playing. He has a great bass voice and is not afraid to show a little more sensitive side to the Man in Black.
The show stealer though, was Callahan, who captures Lewis’ irreverent, brash, and flamboyant personality.
There is a bit of a problem with Hope’s Phillips. For a time he does well, playing a pseudo emcee to the audience from time to time, providing narrative, but as the show goes on, he never seems to get away from the used car salesman-type character. A more natural approach in the scenes with the musicians would have given him a little more definition, while he could have maintained the snappy record producer bit for the asides to the audience.
Aside from the aforementioned vocal problems of Rochette, the music was incredible, especially by Darnell and Lewis, who carry the heaviest duties regarding featured guitar and piano playing respectively.
The problem though, is the music does little to assist the story. The story is so insignificant that its resolution is almost an afterthought once Callahan launches into Lewis’ classic “Great Balls of Fire.” Does Phillips successfully retain Cash on Sun Records? Does he take the offer to go to RCA Records to help Presley’s career? The answers are given, but the resolution is handled so quickly that it feels like the show doesn’t want to linger on the resolution because the music is more important.
To be fair, the music is more important than anything else in “Million Dollar Quartet.” These are songs that shaped rock ‘n’ roll history. “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’” are all songs that 60 years later are still in the American Songbook.
The recording studio set is nice and compact, getting the characters close to each other so they have very little wiggle room when one of them gets irritated with another.
If you’re a fan of Presley, Perkins, Lewis, and Cash’s music, you’ll love this show. Even if you don’t know their names, which I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t, and may know their songs, it’s an entertaining way to see these songs performed live in a way that nowadays can be done only through actors. These are classic songs and classic musicians worth remembering.