by Gerry Roe
Amana – For many members of the audience at Old Creamery’s production of Million Dollar Quartet the show functions like a time machine. We enter the theatre in 2016 but when the lights go up we are suddenly but firmly planted in Memphis on December 4, 1956. As for me, I was instantly transformed into a small-town 16-year old who wasn’t at all sure that rock and roll was anything but a fad, that it would eventually go the way of the Charleston or the Black Bottom. Then the actor/musicians began to arrive in Sun Studio’s office presided over by none other than Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records and the man who would become famous for discovering Howlin’ Wolf and the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley himself.
For the first and only time four singer/musicians are in Sun Studios together and Sam Phillips (Sean McCall) has the opportunity to record them singly and in groups (hence the title of the play by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux). The four stars with brilliant careers already launched or at least inevitable are indeed a million dollar quartet. In addition to the quartet: Elvis Presley (Morgan McDowell), Carl Perkins (Sean Riley), Johnny Cash (Todd Meredith) and the ambitious upstart Jerry Lee Lewis (Marek Sapieyevski), the stage and the recording will include Carl Perkins’s brother Jay (Jake Stanboro), a fine bass player and Fluke (Tristan Tapscott), an exceptional drummer. The one female role, Dyanne (Sarah Hoch) at first appears to be just one of Elvis’s attractive, well-dressed women but she is also a musician, a singer who holds her own among the multi-talented men on the stage. Among other things, she shakes a mean pair of maracas.
Marianna Coffey’s functional set design minimally captures a recording studio and costume designs by Marquetta Senters instantly place us in the mid-fifties and clearly evoke the personalities of the characters.
The outstanding feature of the show is, of course, the quartet. Each man has the opportunity to demonstrate his singing as well as his formidable instrumental talent. Carl Perkins (Sean Riley) is a fine singer as well as an exceptional performer with his bass guitar. Perkins is in something of a career slump, needing another hit to keep his career moving forward. As a result, he displays some rather sharp interactions with other members of the quartet. He is impatient with the musical aggressiveness of Jerry Lee Lewis (Mark Sapyeski) thinking that Lewis’s enthusiastic piano is an intrusion on his (Perkins’s) music. He is also resentful of Elvis who seems to have stolen “Blue Suede Shoes” from him and used the song on his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show (where the camera catches his performance only from the waist up). Did you know that Perkins wrote the song about the blue shoes? If I did, I had forgotten it because the song has been so completely identified with Elvis.
Morgan McDowell’s Elvis Presley perfectly captures the young Elvis with his unique blend of gospel and rock and roll. McDowell’s voice recalls the young, enthusiastic singer who could turn from “Hound Dog” to a spiritual without skipping a beat. Both genres are familiar to him and he seems happy to share them with us. It’s a compelling performance. His physicality is evident, seeming to foreshadow some of Presley’s more sensuous movements.
Jerry Lee Lewis has only begun his career and sees a recording contract with Sun Records as a step forward. He is truly a country boy, desperately trying to insert himself into any musical number and longing to be accepted in what he sees as the music world. In addition to spectacular pianistic ability, he has already written songs that will enter into the pantheon of rock and roll music; songs such as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Wild Child,” and would go on to write other great songs including “Great Balls of Fire.” Sapyeski captures Lewis’s naivete and his apparently boundless energy, hammering the keys of his piano, even playing the piano behind his back.
The fourth member of the quartet is, of course, Johnny Cash. Born J.R.Cash, he eventually began to call himself John Cash. Sam Phillips is credited with giving him the name we all know: Johnny Cash. Todd Meredith’s singing is modeled on Johnny Cash’s deep voice, including all the low notes we remember in “Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Meredith’s performance is so good that I never felt he was imitating Cash but channeling him.
Now for Sam Phillips, the man who could be considered the godfather of rock and roll. But it isn’t just his love of music that propels him. He is a businessman who is trying to keep Sun Records alive. Sean McCall brings out both sides of the man, and is central to the conflict in the play. Without that conflict, it would just be an unforgettable collection of songs by the quartet. Phillips has prepared a renewal contract for Johnny Cash, hoping to make Sun Records even more important in the music world. Phillips lost Elvis to another record company in exchange for the cash he needed for the survival of Sun Records, and he looks to Johnny Cash’s renewal contract to provide his company with an even brighter future. Historians of country music and rock and roll will know how the conflict plays out but for most of us it provides the conflict and suspense that turn a recital into a play.
Whatever your feelings about rock and roll, go see this show. Take a ride on this time machine whether or not you are old enough to remember the fifties. You won’t be disappointed, and I’d bet you’ll find yourself humming or even singing some of the remarkable songs.
Million Dollar Quartet continues at Old Creamery Theater through June 26.