Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Directed by by Hunter Foster
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 17, 2017
Million Dollar Quartet is certainly a crowd-pleaser. With a catalog of classic music from the early days of rock n’ roll, played and sung live on stage and with a great deal of energy and respect for the material, a show like this is sure to please. The closing show of the Rep’s 50th season, this slightly plotted, music-heavy show is, for the most part, an entertaining success, even though it does have its problems, especially in casting.
The show is inspired by an actual event–a historic day in 1956 when four musical legends–Elvis Presley (Ari McKay Wilford), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals), Carl Perkins (John Michael Presney), and Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott) all gathered for an impromptu jam session at the Sun Records studios in Memphis. The events here are largely embellished, creating a fictional girlfriend for Elvis named Dyanne (Ryah Nixon) who is a singer and can join in on the music, and focusing a lot of its attention on Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips (James Ludwig), who is facing a dilemma when he’s offered a chance to sell his company and join Elvis at his new record company, RCA. There’s a big element of “history lesson” to this show as well, telling us a lot about the backgrounds about the various artists. It’s also a lesson in competing egos, as the talented musicians jockey for favor and boast about their success. This gives us a look at future legends still fairly early in their careers, and in the case of Jerry Lee Lewis, at the very beginning of his. For the most part, though, it’s more jam session than story, with the performers playing various hits such as “Blue Suede Shoes”, “I Walk the Line”, “Great Balls of Fire”, and more. There’s even a nod to the late, great Chuck Berry with a performance of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”, as well as a foray into Gospel music with “Down By the Riverside”, “I Shall Not Be Moved”, and “Peace In the Valley.”
The music here is really the star, with all the musicians playing their own instruments and performing the songs well. There are some excellent musical moments and some stand-out performances, especially from the energetic, charismatic Scott as Lewis, and by Presney as Perkins, who displays an impressive talent on the guitar. There are also strong performances from Ludwig as Sam Phillips and Nixon as Dyanne, who has strong singing moments with “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin'”. There’s also strong musical support from Eric Scott Anthony, as Carl Perkins’ brother Jay, on bass, and by Zach Cossman as drummer Fluke. The problematic casting comes in the form of Seals and McKay. Try as he might, the pleasant-voiced Wilford just doesn’t quite convince as Elvis, lacking in the sheer sense of charisma and magnetism, and although Seals gives a strong acting performance as Cash, his voice isn’t low enough or strong enough to carry off Cash’s classic songs, especially “I Walk the Line” in which Seals noticeably strains to the degree that it affects his overall credibility. Still, everyone seems to be having a great time here, and the group singing sessions are particularly strong.
Technically, the show is simply and effectively staged. There isn’t a need for an elaborate set, as it all takes place in the Sun Records studio, although that studio is vividly realized by set designer Adam Koch, whose two-level set provides the ideal backdrop for the performances. Costume designer Lauren T. Roark has outfitted the performers well, in colorful period-specific costumes that suit the various performers well. There’s also excellent lighting by Kirk Boookman and sound by Bart Fasbender, highlighting the clarity, energy, and sheer musicality of the performance.
This is a fun show, and even though it isn’t perfect, it entertains. Toward the end of the production, a photo and recording of the real legendary performers is shown, and it does serve as something of an extra reminder that what we’re seeing on stage is only an imperfect re-creation. Still, Million Dollar Quartet is full of great music and serves as a fitting tribute to its subjects. Even though the casting isn’t always ideal and it often comes across as more of a concert than a play, it’s a lively, well-played presentation featuring a lot of great music that is worth hearing, remembering, and celebrating.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Million Dollar Quartet until April 9, 2017.