Tuesday, June 6, 2023

"Million Dollar Quartet" at Old Log Theater

This summer, Old Log Theatre is bringing back their 2016 hit Million Dollar Quartet.* Based on the historic night when Carl Perkins, "the king of rockabilly;" Jerry Lee Lewis, "rock and roll's first great wild man;" Johnny Cash, "one of the best-selling musicians of all time;" and Elvis Presley, simply "the king," had a jam session at Sun Records in Memphis, the show is a surefire crowd pleaser. The music that came out of Sun Records in that era, and these four artists in particular, defined a generation. A generation that's sure to head out to Excelsior to see this show, but these iconic musicians and songs appeal to younger generations too, and this fantastic cast brings this magical night to life with great energy. The show plays through next February, but summer is a great time to visit the lovely lake town of Excelsior with its many shops, restaurants, and beautiful views (click here for info and tickets).

Elijah Leer, Mitchell Dallman, Armando Harlow Ronconi,
Eric Sargeant, and Myia Ann Butler (photo courtesy of Old Log)
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. Throughout the show, we get a sense of who each artist is and where they are at this point in time, and their future plans, that might not align with Sam's. Therein lies the conflict, such as it is, but the show really is about the music, in this slice of life and intersection of these great music makers.

the cast/band (photo courtesy of Old Log)
Directed by Christine O'Grady, the 100-minute no intermission show moves along at a good pace, from one hit to the next, with brief conversations in between. David Beukema as Sam Phillips is an excellent guide through this journey, and we feel for Sam and the changes he's facing. The four stars are well-cast, and they all play their own instruments. They make up the band, along with Music Director Kyle Baker on bass and Spencer Schoeneman on percussion, who also serve as an extension of the cast. Reprising his role from the 2016 production, Eric Sargent is a smooth cool Johnny Cash, with the look and the voice of the man in black. Armando Harlow Ronconi has the moves and the charisma for Elvis. Mitchell Dallman is a great Carl Perkins, with some impressive guitar skills. Rounding out this million dollar quartet is Elijah Leer as Jerry Lee Lewis, with boundless youthful energy, pounding on the piano and leaping around the stage, most impressively in the encore of "Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On." But this isn't entirely a boys' club, thanks to Myia Ann Butler as Elvis' girlfriend, adding her gorgeous voice in harmony and on a couple of solos.

It looks like Old Log dug their 2016 set out of storage for this show, and it's a good one. It looks every bit the music studio, including a music booth seen through a window where Sam often hangs out, and black and white tiles that together display that iconic photo (see above). The fun '50s costumes fits our image of each musician (scenic design by Erik Paulson, costume design by Meghan Kent). The design sets the scene for the music, which includes all 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 appropriation of Black music by White artists feels a little insensitive and uncomfortable in today's environment (even more true in 2023 than when I first wrote about it in 2016). Carl Perkins mentions learning to play the guitar from a Black man who lived across the street, and 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, and acknowledged the roots of this American music genre, rather than a just giving it a few throwaway lines.