Oh, what a night! Late December back in ’56 when four legends of rock and country music gathered at Sun Records to noodle around with each other at what was supposed to be a Carl Perkins recording session. The founder and kingmaker Sam Phillips had the good sense to just let the tape run, and he picked it up for posterity. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Million Dollar Quartet.
If you think you’ve seen Million Dollar Quartet at the Fox, well, you saw one of them. The national tour that passed through several years back was a whole lotta fun, but being able to experience this show in the more intimate confines of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, especially with its superior sound system, takes this show to a whole new level, and the music soars around us like it’s organic and eternal. What? Oh, yeah, that’s because it is. This IS the soundtrack of the life of a Baby Boomer, and what a serendipitous time for us to receive such a gift, officially opening on the very day that Chuck Berry duckwalked into history.
There were serious issues in the music industry at this time, and in the personal lives of the stars depicted here. Payola got the most ink, and Sam Phillips (James Ludwig) refers to paying deejays to play his records, but it’s passed off as a joke. More serious was the co-opting of black culture in the birth of rock and roll, and the impact of that transgression becomes greater with time. The true parents of this art form weren’t white, but record producers thought white audiences would prefer to find their thrill on Pat Boone’s “Blueberry Hill” instead of Fats Domino’s or hear Elvis wail on Big Mama Thornton’s”(You Ain’t Nothin’ But a) Hound Dog.” In 1956 when Million Dollar Quartet is set, the Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy and the country, reeling from two recent wars, didn’t feel like disturbing their Leave it to Beaver dreams to think about such issues as this, or feminism or McCarthyism or nascent LGBTQ activism or any ‘ism that was likely to cause further schism.
As for the “boys” (and they really were kids, even though Elvis Presley (Ari McKay Wilford) is already a phenom and Johnny Cash (Sky Seals) seems world-weary, they are only 21 and 24, respectively. Maniacal, not-yet-famous Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott), and the angry Carl Perkins (John Michael Presney, who played this role in the first national tour) were the same ages. There are nods to their problems—Perkins drinks, for example—but as far as substance abuse went, there would be no way to depict what was to come. For now, they are still young, full of piss and vinegar, and in love with the music they’re making, even though corporate America is hovering, ready to pounce. In the case of Presley, it already has. Phillips sold his contract to RCA Records to bail out the drowning Sun Records, and there are others almost out the door, as well, but that is part of the story here that I won’t spoil.
The group is rounded out by Perkins’ brother Jay (Eric Scott Anthony) on bass and “Fluke” (Zach Cossman), drums, who act as sidemen for the session. Elvis brings his girlfriend Dyanne (Ryah Nixon), an aspiring singer who he’s planning to introduce to his parents later that evening. Everyone on this stage, including Phillips, is a terrific musician, but the audience seemed to enjoy Lewis’s antics the most. Like Harpo Marx on speed (you’ll know that’s not redundant, if you see the performance), Lewis mugs, bangs his piano, uses his bench and mic as props, and tears about the set like a wild man. He brags of having two wives (at the same time, apparently) before he was even 21 and tells tall tales about back home in Louisiana where his mama buried his five-year-old brother in the back yard cause daddy was in prison, and prophesied that her son would be a superstar. Incest jokes fly, and he’s ragin’ but just don’t call him “Cajun.”
Cash was the most compelling to me, but then he always is because I’m an unabashed fan of the “Man in Black,” from his earliest hit (“Walk the Line”) to his last album cut in his late 70s, but a broken man, bowed by years of fighting addictions, the loss of his beloved wife (not the “Vivian” referenced here, but the more well-known June Carter Cash), and his own melancholy nature. But that voice! It was magical in its flexibility, his ability to dip low and swoop high and make you feel all kinds of things that maybe you shouldn’t but they sure are fun. Seals does an excellent job with Cash, right down to his signature guitar licks and his sincere yet conflicted faith in God.
Perkins’ grudge against Elvis is well-founded but not Presley’s fault. There was a car accident that precluded Perkins’ keeping a date to sing “Blue Suede Shoes,” which he wrote and put on the charts (he also wears them here, a nice touch) only to see Elvis do it on Ed Sullivan when Carl was in the hospital recovering. Presley protests that it was “the Colonel’s” (Tom Parker, his draconian manager) idea and Elvis never crossed him, as some of us remember. But Perkins believes and rightly so, that most people think when he sings his own song now, that he is covering Elvis, not vice versa. Perkins will be more kindly regarded in the future as the true innovator of “Rockabilly,” but for now, this has all made him bitter, and he’s obviously jealous of the bigger star.
Elvis himself is a compelling musician, but the least charismatic of the actors, but who, really, could do justice to Elvis Presley? Sam Phillips is a bundle of energy and ambition, a man faced with a tough decision about whether to leave Sun to rejoin Elvis at RCA, and he must make that call this very night. Other big changes may be coming, as well. Hunter Foster, who directed this iteration with most of the actors he brought into town with him from an earlier production, knows this material intimately. He originated the role of Sam Phillips in the original Broadway show, and his mark on it is considerable. His blocking of the performers is especially impressive. They begin far apart, isolated in their own spaces in the studio, but draw closer to each other physically throughout until the culmination of the iconic photograph lowered from the rafters at just the right moment.
It’s impossible to pick a favorite among this amazing 2+ hours of songs, not just rock or rockabilly, but also country, and a good deal of gospel as these performers all come from similar impoverished rural backgrounds where the only thing bigger than Daddy (if he was around) was God. They do uncanny things with their instruments. Presney’s guitar is a revelation, and Anthony’s “Brother” Jay can even play the standup bass backward and over his shoulders. It’s really something to see.
Dyanne (called DeeDee) doesn’t do much but shake her maracas as far as instruments go, but she gives a steamy rendition of “Fever,” and her 1950s vavoom figure (what was that cigarette slogan? “so round, so firm, so fully packed”) is an asset to, well, just about everything. She can belt with the best of them and often rounds out the quartet with her feminine touch, such as the eerie screaming in another standout number by Seals, “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” But what’s most amazing to me, is that these guys can really sing, instruments or not. Voice blends are perfect (Phillips fits in here too from time to time) and you’ll get chills when you hear the harmonies on “Down by the Riverside,” “Peace in the Valley,” and “I Shall Not Be Moved,” (rendered in a rather odd mashup with “Rockin’ Robin,” but it works somehow).
The set, lighting and other production aspects are perfect or nearly so. There are some draggy line pickups in the first act, but the remarks are short, and that is always a danger in a high energy musical anyway. My only other nit to pick is that the curtain call business is milked just a little too hard, but it’s still fun.“This is where the soul of a man never dies,” Phillips tells Dyanne, talking about Sun Records. He might have been right. Hell, if you believe this show, he WAS right. If you go, you’re going to have the time of your life.
For more information, contact www.repstl.org or call 314-968-4925. Million Dollar Quartet runs through Apr. 9, and ends the 50th Anniversary Season in fine style.