Updated: Aug 16
Whole Lotta Rock History Goin’ On over at Sun Records
For nearly eight years, "Million Dollar Quartet" packed the intimate Apollo Theater in Lincoln Park, finally ranking as the third-longest running show in Chicago Theatre history (behind “Co-Ed Prison Sluts” and “Shear Madness”).
Opening on Broadway in 2010, the musical garnered three Tony nominations with an original cast recording released that same year. But then, there’s a lot to like about this familiar-theme story of the fabled night when four giants of popular music all turned up in a tiny Memphis studio all at the same time, purely by happenstance. The studio session is not only a celebration but a portent of the demise of Sun as the center of the nascent rock universe.
In a way, this production stands as a metaphor for the underlying story in music historian Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux's book, (the latter of whom made the marvelously obscure 1978 film “American Hot Wax,” loosely based on the story of the disgraced disc jockey Alan Freed). And there’s no better production that tells that tale than the current one playing now at South Coast Repertory’s Outside SCR at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The show, which opened July 30th, continues its energetic jukebox through August 21st with some of the most iconic impressions of rock and roll greats you will ever see, heralded by Gibson guitars, the thump-thump of a stand-up bass, and a piano with the jittery nerves of a brand-new dad.
“Million Dollar Quartet” has a pleasing modesty, taking place as it does on a single afternoon, Dec. 4, 1956, in the rattletrap recording studio of Sun Records in Memphis. Aficionados of the dinosaur days of rock will recognize this date’s momentousness. Mostly by chance, one of the great jam sessions in recording history took place there and then, as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley all gathered to shoot the breeze, harmonize, strum their guitars or thunder away at the piano keys. At the time, Presley and Lewis were both barely 21, with Cash and Perkins just turning 24.
Chief among the show’s pleasures is the songbook, naturally, which includes a lot of the obvious chart toppers — “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog” — as well as country songs and spirituals like “Peace in the Valley” and “Down by the Riverside.” But the prime asset of “Million Dollar Quartet,” directed by James Moye (who starred in the original Broadway production of “Million Dollar Quartet as Sam Phillips”) and musically directed by Alexander Burke, is the explosive vitality of the music making.
The actors portraying these pioneers — Armando Gutierrez as Perkins, Chris Clark as Cash, Billy Rude as Lewis and Rustin Cole Sailors as Presley — don’t just play the roles but play the music too. Wyatt Wireman on bass in the nominal role of Perkins’ brother (simply known as Brother Jay), and Israel Lopez Reyes who plays W.S. “Fluke” Holland on an amazing set of drums, round out the band. Gifted musicians and likable performers all, they tackle with no apparent discomfort the unenviable chore of impersonating some of the most revered names in pop music, with their slick pompadours right down to their frisky, agile fingertips.
To play the B-side for a bit, “Million Dollar Quartet” hardly avoids the artificial and the formulaic as it lays out the various paths that led to this fabled gathering. The show is narrated by Sam Phillips (the affablel Corey Jones), founder of Sun Records, dropping hints between songs at the rivalries, petty jealousies, and grudging respect these Southern boys all had for one another — all poor, ambitious, and fired up by this new fad of music: this combustible commingling of country and rhythm and blues, which gave birth to what we now call rock 'n roll.
Corey Jones’ Sam Phillips tells us early on, "There's a cussedness about me," and we do believe that he is just the kind of guy who would go to great lengths to get his artists on the air. Jones’ defiant story-telling, and his own hip-swinging glee as the songs pour out, show us a man who knows the value of a dollar, but prefers the pure joy of creating great hits.
As Phillips ruefully informs us, he has sold Presley’s contract to RCA in order to keep Sun alive pay his pressing bills. He produced a smash for the titillating Perkins (Mr. Gutierrez) with “Blue Suede Shoes,” but hasn’t been able to come up with a follow-up. On top of that, Elvis (Mr. Sailors) has stolen his thunder by recording his only hit song and turning it into his own hit.
Cash has broken through to the big time too, recently banging out a rowdy version of “Folsom Prison Blues,” but his contract is about to expire. Phillips has a new three-year extension ready, and is fully expecting the loyal Cash to come by and sign it this afternoon, ensuring the future of the company, at least for the immediate future.
Meanwhile, Phillips is supervising a Perkins recording session, to which he has invited his latest discovery, Jerry Lee Lewis (his rapscallion randiness captured perfectly by Billy Rude), to add his flaming keyboard licks. "Eighty-eight keys beats six strings," he boasts — and by the time he closes the show with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," we do know why he says that. It's clear that the House that Sam Phillips Built still has a sturdy foundation of talent to last beyond this legendary night.
And while Elvis and Johnny wrestle with their contracts and their consciences, and Carl fights the green-eyed monster of envy, Mr. Rude's Jerry Lee flirts outrageously with Elvis' girlfriend that came along with him — Dyanne (Michelle Lauto), a knockout in a curvy sheath dress who shimmies through a boiling-hot rendition of “Fever,” and then later heats it up again with a steamy “I Hear You Knockin.’”
All of which is fairly smoothly integrated into the flow of the jam session, but is incidental to the real purpose of the show, which is to let the performers cut loose on a hit parade of early favorites, providing the audience with blast after blast of sweet nostalgia. Even those who generally frown at the "jukebox musical" genre should find plenty to applaud in the terrific performances — all five of them crackerjack singers and musicians— who walk the line by delivering the original stars' familiar intonations and mannerisms, without falling into the trap of excessive caricature.
As Perkins, with his laughing eyes leering beneath dancing eyebrows, Mr. Gutierrez is an exciting singer and does an excellent job of conjuring rock legend Carl Perkins’s jangling rockabilly guitar style. And Mr. Clark wins audience applause more than once for channeling the laid-back Cash’s unique blend of outlaw and holy man. Helping that is the hair, the swank, the black costuming, piercing eyes, the moral uneasiness and Mr. Clark’s midnight-hued vocal chops.
Mr. Sailors has Elvis Presley’s smooth crooner’s voice, hips with an easy twitch and the mannerisms of the young Presley down pat. But the flashiest, borderline-cartoonish role belongs to Mr. Rude, who nails Lewis’ rebellion, cockiness, primal sexuality and ferociously feral piano pounding to a tee. Whether he’s making sly moves on Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne (Ms. Lauto), or exchanging acid wisecracks with Perkins, Mr. Rude’s Lewis has a brash goofball charm, and his thrashing, electric, keyboard style is an impressive approximation of Jerry Lee Lewis’ febrile dexterity.
But don’t look for too much era-ending bittersweetness, because the show closes with Phillips assuring us that everyone’s careers went just fine after that fateful occasion. Then follows a 15-minute concert encore that encourages everyone to shake it, baby, shake it in spangled jackets, whipping the crowd into a predictable frenzy. By that time, every baby-boomer that could still stand was up on their feet cheering, doing backup with the band in a rock party that rivaled the Apollo in the ‘60s.
South Coast Repertory proudly presents, “Million Dollar Quartet,” with Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux; Original concept and direction by Floyd Mutrux; Inspired by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Directed by James Moye; Musically Directed by Alexander Burke; Scenic Design by Efren Delgadillo Jr.; Costume Design by Kish Finnegan; Lighting Design by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Sound Design by Jeff Polunas; Stage Managed by Kathryn Davies. Artistic Director is David Ivers; Managing Director is Paula Tomei; Founding Artistic Directors are David Emmes & Martin Benson.
Starring: Rustin Cole Sailors, Armando Gutierrez, Chris Clark, Billy Rude, Israel Lopez Reyes, Wyatt Wireman, Corey Jones and Michelle Lauto. Understudies: Caroline Pernick, Matthew MacNelly and Tucker Boggs.
"Million Dollar Quartet" runs July 30th through August 21st, produced in partnership with Outside SCR at Mission San Juan Capistrano for a second summer to provide you the opportunity to gather safely outdoors and experience family-friendly, world-class theatre under the stars. Performance times are Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30PM. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. For ticket information, visit: www.scr.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report