By Michall Jeffers
From the moment we see the perfect set for Million Dollar Quartet, we know we’re in for a treat. A big neon sign saying “SUN” proclaims our location. The back wall is lined with gold records, and all set to go are four standing microphones, a piano, guitars, a drum kit, and a bass. Music is clearly the name of the game. It’s December 4, 1956, in Memphis, Tennessee. We’re in the recording studio of music legend Sam Phillips (Jason Loughlin), dubbed “The Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” who discovered and promoted the hottest pop idols of the mid-fifties: Elvis Presley (Ari McKay Wilford), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals), Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott), and Carl Perkins (John Michael Presney). This is the story of the magical night they all came together and had an impromptu jam session- or at least, the theatrical interpretation of that true event.
It should come as no surprise that the multi-talented director, Hunter Foster, has put together this outstanding production. After all, he played Phillips on Broadway, and knows the show inside and out. He keeps the energy high, and the actors he’s assembled are both talented musicians and fine performers who skillfully bring these legends to life. Jerry Lee Lewis “from Faraday, Louisiana,” is the flamboyant scene stealing rocker who injects the most fun into the proceedings. With his mop of curly blond hair, his wicked piano playing, and a permanently crazed look in his eyes, he is, as he sings, “a real wild child.” On the other end of the spectrum, Johnny Cash is calm and quiet, but he’s ill at ease; he has to tell Phillips that he won’t be signing his upcoming contract. “JR,” as he’s known to his friends, is defecting to Columbia Records. Carl Perkins brings his brother, Jay (Sam Weber), a superb bass player, in with him. They are former share croppers, the lowest of the low of the economic caste system of the South. Carl has had a hit with his composition, “Blue Suede Shoes,” and Sam wants him to repeat the feat with new material.
Carl is more than a little ticked off that Elvis has been a huge hit on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” singing “Blue Suede Shoes.” Elvis is the big deal when he comes into the studio, bringing with him his sexy girlfriend, Dyanne. An auburn haired looker wearing a tight green dress and spike heels, Dyanne is used to men falling at her feet, and when she belts out “Fever,” the temperature quickly rises in all the guys. Dyanne is on her way to meet Elvis’s cherished mama, which should be a play in itself. The back story of Sam and his protégé is complicated. While Sam mentored the young truck driver, recognizing in Elvis the potential of a white kid “who sounds like a Negro,” because of extreme financial distress he was forced to sell Presley to RCA for $40,000. Now the big record label wants to hire Phillips, and Elvis wants him, Sam, to come help and guide him. Will Sam Phillips defect, or will he stick with Sun Records and his boys? Complications abound, but when the music begins, all is forgotten, and in addition to individual numbers, the quartet belts out “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Down By The Riverside,” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” much to the delight of the audience.
Million Dollar Quartet is, without a doubt, one of the finest productions of Westchester Broadway Theatre. If you love the old rock, country, and gospel sounds of the era, this is a sure fire hit I’m sure you’ll enjoy.
David Sonneborn fills out the cast in the role of Fluke.
Million Dollar Quartet, through Sept. 11, 2016
Westchester Broadway Theatre, 1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford NY, 10526
2 hrs, 50 min, ½ hour
Book: Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux ; Associate Director/Choreographer: Jennifer Cody; Costume Design: Molly Walz; Set Design: Derek McLane; Lighting Design: Andrew Gmoser
Photos by John Vecchiolla