Million Dollar Quartet,book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, original concept by Floyd Mutrux. Songs by numerous songwriters. Directed by Michael Berresse. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Jefferson McDonald, Tommy Crawford, Joe Boover, James Penca; photo: Hubert Schriebl
"Sing to me like you would sing to Jesus."
James Penca as Johnny Cash; photo: Hubert Schriebl
This show, "Million Dollar Quartet" is akin to a religious experience in a revival tent on the Oklahoma prairie; however, on stage at the Weston Playhouse in Weston Vermont, four 1950s music icons are together on December 4, 1956 in Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee for an unanticipated jam session that makes music history (for real) and reveals all sorts of truths not usually discussed in their day or even since. The million dollar quartet of Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and fledgling Jerry Lee Lewis make music for nearly two hours singing twenty-three hit songs from the days of early Rock and Roll, with a few hymns and gospel numbers thrown into the mix aided by two side men (bass and drums), a girl singer from Hollywood and the man who created the singing stars from the raw talent they showed him. That man was Sam Phillips, the founder and producer of Sun Records.
Sun was not just home to the million dollar quartet, it was also the launching pad for Conway Twitty, Roy Orbison, Roger Miller, Jeannie C. Riley, Merle Haggard, Willie Nix and Junior Parker. Almost a year after Presley was wooed away by RCA Victor, Phillips was approached about selling his company to them and moving to New York to produce Presley again. This offer is the plot point for this musical.
The leader of the pack, all-stars in pop music, is Phillips himself. While the four singers, the girl and the sidemen make the music, it is the producer that makes the emotion, makes the movement, makes the wheels turn and the gears mesh in this play. So much emphasis is made, usually, about the singers' lives that it is easy to overlook the one essential of this show - Phillips' choice. This show is more about him than it is about Perkins, or Cash, or Presley.
It's hard to pinpoint who makes the deepest impression by not doing impressions of the stars, but the Johnny Cash ofJames Penca comes closest here to sounding like the character. Penca has depth and low notes and a sense of the quaver that made Cash so instantly identifiable. He gets to sing "Folsom Prison Blues," "Sixteen Tons," "I Walk the Line" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky" during the show and each time, closing my eyes I could almost buy the fact that Cash was alive and singing just for me.
Caitlin Doak, Joe Boover; photo: Hubert Schriebl
Joe Boover's Elvis was a decent mock-up of the superstar, but never achieved that edginess that was Elvis Presley. Boover has a good voice, a great guitar technique and all the right moves including pointed toe, pelvis twitch, hip swings and leg hops that are quintessential Elvis and his youthful good looks can call to mind the 50s sensation, but his Elvis is only a character here, and not a recreation of the man. His performance was, however, completely enjoyable and I bought that this Elvis character was a character and not the man himself.
As his girlfriend of the moment, Hollywood starlet Dyanne, Caitlin Doak played the sexiness, and the sadness, the sweetness and the songstress of the character soloing on Peggy Lee's "Fever" and "I Hear you Knocking" and also providing a lovely descant line to "Ghost Riders in the Sky." She also brought a few sympathetic moments into play with Phillips and with Cash.
Jerry Lee Lewis is given an inner excitement and a religious fervor worthy of his evangelist cousin Jimmy Swaggart by Jefferson McDonald who plays a mean piano in the Lee Lewis style and sings just as uinintelligibly. His work in this show, including his impromptu sermon, is wonderful.
Karack Osborn; photo: Internet provided
Bass player Kroy Pressley does some wonderful musical turns and drummer Jonathan Brown is also an excellent musician who adds a lot to the texture of the show. But with all this musical talent in the show, the standout player is actor Karack Osborn who plays Sam Phillips.
Osborn carries the emotional baggage of the play and has the most intense relationships with each of the four 'stars' of the show. The honesty and integrity of this stageplay comes from Phillips and Osborn brings out the true feelings of each one the singers in turn as he exercises the unwritten emotional options that four young music-makers have assumed in their work in his studio. Osborn plays his role with calm clarity even when Phillips' world is turned literally upside-down at this improvised holiday party he has forged, getting all four men together at the same time. It would seem a contrivance by a playwright if it wasn't for the fact that most of what happens in the play actually happened on that fateful date, most of it preserved in the recording Phillips made of the event. Knowing that going in makes everything you see and hear even more important.
Director Michael Berresse has kept this show real on every level. The four men have honest relationships with one another, including mutual admiration as well as disgust at material being stolen from one by another. Disdain for Jerry Lee Lewis and his need for center stage disrupting the evening is key to the work and Berresse does some wonderful things with this character, moving McDonald from one awkward situation into another with ease and a familiarity that Lewis could not have brought to this gathering. Berresse has truly used this actor and his character as a catapult for one more song, one more moment, over and over again.
Tim Mackabee's set is probably as close as possible to the actual Sun Studios. Leon Dobkowski's costumes are perfect 1956 clothing. Seth Reiser registered nicely with mood lighting that added to the songs and the personal moments on stage. Josh Millican's sound design was near perfection. Patricia Norcia has coached the actors in their dialects so that they sound authentic and are also understandable. . .no mean trick.
All in all, this is a crazy way to spend a summer night or afternoon, indulging in the music of an era that created a musical revolution in America. After the play itself ends, the men and the girl just make more music and more music and more. It makes the whole experience into that rock concert you never got to and wished you had.
Million Dollar Quartet continues at the Weston Playhouse, through September 2. For information and tickets go on line to westonplayhouse.org or call the box office at 802-824-5288.