The story, such as it is, plays out on one night in December of 1956 at Sun Records in Memphis. Sun owner and music producer Sam Phillips narrates the evening, with flashbacks about how each artist came to be at Sun. Soon after selling Elvis' contract to RCA to save Sun, Sam has been offered a position at RCA, and has to decide between working for the big machine, or continuing to struggle to run his small business the way he wants. That's pretty much the extent of the plot, but no one comes to see this show for the plot. We do get a sense of who each artist is and where they are at this point in time.
|Eric Morris as Jerry Lee Lewis and Matt Tatone as Carl Perkins
(photo courtesy of Old Log Theatre)
as Jerry Lee Lewis. I've always found Eric to have great energy on stage, but never put to better use than as Jerry Lee, the only member of the quartet still living and a man so charismatic, he convinced seven women to marry him (including his 13-year-old cousin, but that was after the events of this night so let's not dwell on it). Pounding on the keyboard with his hands, feet, and other body parts, kicking the bench out of the way, performing some impressive hairography, and even climbing on top of the piano, Eric's performance is the fire that fuels this high energy show. Pro tip: keep your eyes on Eric throughout the show to see his always interesting and consistent character choices, even when quietly playing piano in the background. Which of course Jerry Lee Lewis never did, and Eric Morris doesn't either.
On the other end of the spectrum, and the stage, Eric Sargent's Johnny Cash is like water - as in smooth, cool, and long tall drink of. The first time I saw Eric on stage his flowing brown locks reached past his shoulders and he beautifully sang one of the lead roles in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Iolanthe. I was afraid he and his voice were too pretty for one of country music's best loved and grittiest stars, but happily I was wrong. Gone are the flowing locks, replaced with a smart, slick, and slightly darker hairstyle, and his lovely operatic voice has transformed into that familiar bass-baritone voice (still a little too pretty to be Johnny, but I don't mind).
|Jerry Lee, Carl, Johnny, and Elvis
(Eric Morris, Matt Tatone, Eric Sargent, Frank Moran,
photo courtesy of Old Log Theatre)
That leaves Frank Joseph Moran's Elvis as, appropriately, the wind that blows through the studio and stirs things up, making this monumental evening possible. Frank has the star power, mellow tone, pompadour, and trademark swiveling hips (choreography by Deb Knutson) of The King of Rock and Roll.
Of course, the guys are just four disconnected elements without the heart and soul of the show, Paul Rutledge as Sam Phillips, the man responsible for bringing these stars together, and to the world. His narration ties the stories together, and his dilemma about the future of the business provides the throughline of plot around which the songs are placed.
And just to prove that Rock and Roll wasn't 100% an old boys club (maybe 95%), Mollie Fischer appears as Elvis' girlfriend, dancing, flirting, wearing a pretty dress, singing a few songs (including a showstopping Fever), and holding her own amongst the boys.
The cast really performs these familiar and beloved songs with spirit, heart, and soul, supported by the band that also functions as characters (Joshua Ackerley, Spencer Schoeneman, and Kyle Baker), with musical direction by Kyle Picha. You'll hear the big hits like Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" (yes, he wrote it and sang it first), Johnny Cash's "I Walk The Line," Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," and Elvis' "Hound Dog." This loud, fast, classic '50s Rock and Roll is the kind of music you can't sit still while listening to, or at least I can't. But my favorite moments were the beautiful harmonies on songs like "Down By the Riverside" and "Peace in the Valley." Million Dollar Quartet is about the music, and the music is fantastic.
One small quibble with the show: the celebration of the misappropriation of black music by white artists feels a little insensitive and uncomfortable in today's environment. Sam actually says that because white kids are afraid to buy records by black artists, he needs to find a white artist who can sing like a black artist. Hence, Elvis. Wikipedia tells me that Sam Phillips "advocated racial equality and helped break down racial barriers in the music industry." It would have been nice if the creators had delved into that side a bit more, rather than a just a few throwaway lines. But I guess that's what the musical Memphis is for.
|the cast of Million Dollar Quartet
(photo courtesy of Old Log Theatre)
Million Dollar Quartet is playing at the Old Log through January 2017 so you have plenty of time to get out there and see it. But why wait? Why not go now when the charms of Excelsior are at their summer peak? Head over there in the early afternoon to avoid rush hour traffic, peruse the cute and unique shops, sit by the lake, eat at one of the many restaurants, and cap off the night with this nostalgic and musically thrilling show. And if you live in the area, be sure to check out their concert series, which includes the fabulous Jennifer Grimm on August 17.
This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.