They laughed, they jammed, they harmonized and – if Colin Escott’s and Floyd Mutrux’s book is to be believed – three of them had bad news for Sam Phillips. None of it would have survived over time to be enjoyed today if it weren’t for the foresight of sound engineer Jack Clement.
“Million Dollar Quartet” isn’t just a jukebox musical synthesizing a career in a hypothetical time and place while actors do their mightiest to look and sound like the originals. There is that, of course. But Dec. 4, 1956 really was the time, and Sam Phillips’ little recording studio, Sun Records, built out of an old garage in Memphis, Tenn. was the place.
Carl Perkins was there accompanied by his brother Jay playing bass and “Fluke” Holland on drums. Jerry Lee Lewis played back-up piano; Johnny Cash dropped in later followed by Elvis and his girlfriend. An impromptu jam session followed, and even though Sam Phillips was next door part of the time, Clement recognized the significance of the hour, and secretly recorded it.
An entertainment editor was called in with a photographer, and the following day an article and photo appeared in the Memphis Press-Scimitar headlined “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
Sixty-one years later, the concept musical built from this single event has had a successful run on Broadway with three Tony nominations and spawned a minor industry of “Million Dollar Quartet” performers. The production now at Riverside under the direction of Robert Gonyo gives a respectable showing of regional musical and vocal talent – and winds the evening up to a fevered pitch.
Of course the writers had to come up with an arc, because there wasn’t one. In this telling, things will start falling apart for Sam Phillips as his major talents move on to more lucrative contracts – Elvis has already left. But Jerry Lee Lewis had just come in, burning with brazen talent and audacious showmanship.
It must be acknowledged that Gavin Rohrer in the Jerry Lee role steals the show when he has the spotlight. Physical ease, a natural timing, and a sure resemblance to the irrepressible Lewis make for an unforgettable performance. And he can pound that piano – when he pulls out “Great Balls of Fire” you will think you’re hearing the original.
Jason Steffen as Brother Jay and Jamie Pittle as Fluke provide a ripping bass fiddle and drum back-up to most of the show’s twenty-four songs . Todd Meredith, seen on this stage last year as Buddy Holly, is a bit more successful as Carl Perkins. His primary claim to fame in this show is his serious guitar playing ability, and with that we get “Matchbox” and “Who Do You Love” in a passable Perkins style.
It was Sam Phillips’ studio, and Alan Hoffman plays the part of the music visionary who wants to keep his stable of rising stars, but knows his limitations and the siren call of bigger studios. If Act I has what I’ve noted before is a certain blandness and sameness of delivery, Act II pulls him out of this rut and into a scene of serious conflict and confrontation. It didn’t happen on Dec. 4, but that doesn’t matter. It improves the story.
Long, tall Stephen Horst enters and doesn’t particularly remind anyone of Johnny Cash until he opens his mouth to sing “Folsom Prison Blues.” I won’t lie, brothers and sisters. Those were chills going up my spine. The pool of actors who can accurately simulate those famous rusty pipes must be very small – and Mr. Horst is a true find for this show. Kudos!
There’s no evidence that Elvis’s girlfriend sang during the original session, but in this show, Theresa Danskey as “Dyanne” adds a feminine texture that complements the whole. Her performance of “Fever” seems to channel, deliberately or not, the great Peggy Lee.
And then there’s Elvis. Or perhaps I should say “Elvis!” Kavan Hashemian may not have the physical stature, but we came for the voices and his renditions of “That’s Alright, Mama” and “Hound Dog” are spot on – complete with moves that used to send our mothers to the fainting couch. By this time in the program, the house was ready to party, and the energy being tossed back and forth from stage to audience was truly infectious. That kind of energy can’t be faked, and “trying too hard” is death. But this night, it was real.
Adam Koch’s red checkered and multi-windowed set based on the original design makes for an intimate, unpretentious recording space aided by Michael Jarett’s lighting. Only sound was occasionally problematic, with on-stage instruments ramped up so high that there were moments when it was difficult to hear voices, much less words.
So there you are. One brief, unpremeditated hour many years ago was captured, solidified, and transformed. There’s plenty of winter left, but for a hot night in January, walk the line on down to see this “Quartet.”
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Million Dollar Quartet”
Where: Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, Riverside Pkwy., Fredericksburg, Va.
Call: (540) 370-4300 or visit riversidedt.com
Playing through March 5