One fateful day in December 1956, four budding musicians came together by chance in Memphis for an impromptu jam session. It turned out to be a historic event because those up-and-coming rock and rollers were Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.
And right now there’s a recreation of that day in all its glory at The Barn Theatre where there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on with the jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Premiering in 2006 with a Broadway opening in 2010, it has just enough storytelling and variation to link the beloved early rock songs in an engaging way that takes the show beyond a mere hit parade.
Director Patrick Hunter, who also plays a charming, wily, utterly southern Sam Phillips, the creator of Sun Records and man arguably responsible for rock and roll, brings together a terrific cast and a delightful vision to fruition.
Rather than a group of dead ringers for those long-gone stars, the cast members embody the spirit of each distinct character who, together, also double as a killer cover band. Indeed, in addition to acting the roles, under musical direction from Matt Shabala, they’re playing their instruments as if channeling the dead.
Tyler Michael Breeding is a magnificent Carl Perkins. An excellent guitar player, he’s appropriately righteously indignant and sings like a dream. Owen Squire Smith captures the physicality as well as the vocal gravitas of Johnny Cash. With his right shoulder hitched up while he plays the guitar and dressed in black, he looks the part, even if he doesn’t always hit those legendary low notes. And Luke Ragotzy embodies the energy of The King, with a keen focus on his guitar playing and some notorious, recognizable moves.
But the focus throughout the performance is very much on Eric Morris as Jerry Lee Lewis, who deliberately upstages everyone with his cockiness, ebullience, and his spectacularly acrobatic piano playing. His springy curls bob as he leaps, spins, kicks and otherwise scream-sings and plays his little heart out.
Elliott Austin Wirshba as Fluke on drums and Lucas Aguado on bass as Brother Jay support the prima donnas musically and are a wonderful presence on stage. Lizzie Maguire offers a feminine touch as Dyanne, Elvis’s girlfriend, who holds her own with “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking.”
The music also includes recognizable hits such as “I Walk the Line,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “That’s Alright Mama,” and “Great Balls of Fire,” as well as beautiful renditions of lesser known country and gospel tunes, most notably “Peace in the Valley” with gorgeous harmonies, creating a balanced set of highs and lows that mirror the mood of the background including each character’s humble beginnings, where they’re headed, and the ostensible fate of Sun Studios.
Crucial to making these historical figures convincing are the technical elements. Kailyn Shalosky’s set makes the audience feel as if they’re in the studio; Tracy V. Joe’s lights spotlight the show’s many moving pieces; and Karsen Green’s costumes make each man distinctive, as does the choreography from Melissa Cotton Hunter.
To book authors Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s credit, the show acknowledges not only the tensions between these musicians with a nod to their struggles in life beyond music and the under appreciated role of Sam Phillips in discovering and creating a seismic shift in popular music, but also the ugly racist underbelly of rock and roll’s roots—that white folks straight-up stole from an African American tradition, and repackaged and repurposed it for white audiences.
But “Million Dollar Quartet” is really not about righting the wrongs of history. It’s about putting on a fun show of feel good music, and this production gets the audience up and out of their seats moving and grooving like it’s 1956.
Million Dollar Quartet
June 20-July 2