Million Dollar Quartet, book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux; original concept and direction by Floyd Mutrux; inspired by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Directed by James Barry. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Gabriel Aronson as Jerry Lee Lewis, Christy Coco as Dyanne, Brycen Katolinksy as Elvis Presley, Colin Summers as Carl Perkins, Bill Sheets as Johnny Cash, David W. Lincoln as Fluke, Ben Nordstrom as Sam Phillips, Nathan Yates Douglass as Brother Jay; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
"I'd pay 'em and they still wouldn't play 'em."
The musical, "Million Dollar Quartet" which opened on Broadway in 2010, dramatizes a night in December, 1956 when four rock-and-roll greats all showed up at Sun Studios in Memphis and incidentally recorded about 45 tracks together. Based on various accounts of that actual afternoon on December 4, including Johnny Cash's autobiography (he claims to have been an accidental observor and not a participant and his voice does not seem to appear on any of the recordings) the show pits Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and the young Jerry Lee Lewis in an incidental competition in song. The musical, now on stage at the Unicorn Theatre on the Berkshire Theatre Festival campus in Stockbridge, MA, is actually a story about Sam Phillips, the Sun Studios founder and producer and his struggle to stay alive in the music industry in spite of his success with these four stars.
The Tony-nominated show has been directed here by James Barry, a wonderful actor who has played Carl Perkins in productions of this show but who has chosen to remain out of the limelight for this production. Instead he has forged a dynamic and dramatic retelling of this story that, according to one opening night audience member, far outshines the Broadway original. Knowing the period intimately, and loving some of these musicians, it was necessary to put them out of my mind and view the show for what it is: a fictional representation of reality. None of the actors really resemble the men they portray and vocally they certainly are merely mimics. In spite of those things the show is a wonderful experience, loud, brash, fresh and fine. While most of the songs were familiar there were a few I'd never heard before and through the extraordinary talents on display the one hour and forty minute show seemed to fly by, far too fast and far too furious.
Presley was accompanied by Marilyn Evans, his girl-friend at that time, who has been transformed in this play into Dyanne, a young singer who gets her own moments to shine in this production, first with Peggy Lee's seductive song "Fever" and later with "I Hear You Knockin'" which she sings with gusto and verve. In reality Evans seems to have been an obscure 19 year old showgirl at the New Frontier Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas with whom he may have had a brief affair. She has disappeared from history and she certainly does not appear in the original recordings from this historic Jam Session. She was not a fledgling singer with the talents displayed by Christy Coco in the Stockbridge production. Coco is a sensitive beauty with fine singing chops and true interpretive talents. She was in the ensemble of last season's "Fiorello!" and returns this time as the female lead giving credence to the role of a sympathetic listener with intentions to succeed. It's a lively performance and a lovely one.
Phillips campaigned hard for his stable or artists and this is part of the story presented here. He lost major artists to major studios, RCA and Columbia in particular, but he persisted on his own eventually adding Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty to his complete roster. Whether the story's tweak of RCA's interest was real or not, it makes a convenient plot twist for this play about an accidental meeting that turned into a historic display of unique talents recorded for posterity.
The men in this show display phenomenal talent themselves. Brycen Katolinsky is a sweet and endearing Elvis Presley. Bill Sheets is a sexy and solid bass-voiced Johnny Cash. Colin Summers is a dark and dynamic Carl Perkins whose sense of outrage over being overlooked was terrific. Gabriel Aronson brings to Jerry Lee Lewis all of the screwball oddity that made him such a dynamic performer. Opening night his seemed to injure himself with his hard piano playing but he never paused or dropped a beat. The four men of the quartet present a perfect picture of young, raw talent coming together as they pull together their individual careers.
The two sidemen, David W. Lincoln as Fluke the drummer and Nathan Yates Douglass as Perkins brother, bassist Jay Perkins, are excellent musicians. Douglass, whose character is much more of a dramatic presence, is as exciting to watch as any of the quartet playes and he makes a fine counterpoint to the stronger dramatics of Perkins, Presley or Cash.
The inner plot concering Sun's future and Phillips career is especially well handled by Ben Nordstrom. He narrates, plays the plot's present and its past, and forges a relationship with his up-and-coming star Lewis played by Aronson during the show's trajectory. The two men work well together as they tease, torment and support one another. Pulling focus from the three "stars" could injure a delicate show built primarily on its 21 songs, but Nordstrom is perfectly balanced as Phillips and when Aronson's Lewis goes over the top it is Nordstrom's presence that helps to temper the moment.
The period costumes by Jessica Ford give each man his own style and presence. The subtle lighting designed by Oliver Wason keeps the show a stage-play. Ford's set is perfection with its four distinct playing spaces. It is only the sound that keeps the show from fully achieving the reality that every other element reinforces. It is too harsh and loud, too 21st century, and not natural enough to allow the lyrics their play in this 1956 setting.
A good play is given a fine presentation in this season opener from the Berkshire Theatre Group. The house is a small one, so there may well be, and surely deserves to be, a fight for seats so if this era and its music appeal to you, buy now, play later - a 1950s motto (sort of) well deserved for this fine show in Stockbridge.
Gabriel Aronson, Christy Coco, Colin Summers, Nathan Yates Douglass, Brycen Katolinsky; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Ben Nordstrom and Brycen Katolinsky; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Million Dollar Quartet plays at the Unicorn Theatre, 6 East Street, Stockbridge, MA (parking lot on Route 7) through July 15. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line to www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.