Story: Rising young rock ‘n’ roll star Carl Perkins is rehearsing in the Sun Records studio at the Memphis Recording Service owned and operated by Sam Phillips. The latter, who opened his business in 1950 at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, has invited a piano prodigy named Jerry Lee Lewis to sit in on the session, much to Perkins’ annoyance.
Phillips also is expecting another of his “boys,” Johnny Cash, to stop by. That’s a big deal because Phillips is about to reward Cash with a three-year contract to replace the one that is expiring. What he doesn’t know is that Cash already has agreed to join Columbia Records, and by departing follow in the footsteps of another of Phillips’ protégées, Elvis Presley.
When Elvis unexpectedly shows up with his girlfriend on that afternoon of December 4, 1956 with a Christmas present for his former boss, Phillips realizes he may have something special happening. He calls the Memphis Press-Scimitar, which sends a reporter and photographer to document the four young stars at their impromptu jam, which Phillips has recorded.
A story in the daily newspaper the next day refers to the “Million Dollar Quartet” who filled the Sun Records studio with music, life and a spirited time that one fateful day. It’s an event that spans emotions from Phillips’ reaction to Cash’s news to the producer’s realization that his instincts and his “boys” have revolutionized the music world with their brand of playing called rock ‘n’ roll.
Highlights: The Rep caps its historic 50th anniversary season with a rollicking rendition of this jukebox musical that recalls the first and only time four legendary pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll performed together, if only briefly. At times, The Rep’s presentation of Million Dollar Quartet seems more like a concert than a musical, an infectious good time woven around a fascinating story.
Other Info: Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux wrote the book of Million Dollar Quartet, which was first presented in Florida in 2006. A long-running production opened in Chicago in 2008 and eventually eclipsed 2,500 performances before closing in 2016. Additional productions ran in Seattle, on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in London’s West End as well as a national tour.
The touring version played The Fox a few years ago as a one-act, 90-minute piece. The Rep’s rendition runs in two acts and for more than two hours as it devotes more time to the story behind the session, increasing the dramatic impact. The intermission seems rather abruptly and arbitrarily placed but the story picks up easily enough in Act II.
Hunter Foster, who originated the role of Sam Phillips in the Broadway production, is directing his fifth rendition of this lively jukebox musical. He uses all of the spacious, double-decked set designed by Adam Koch as well as stage entrances and exits to focus as much on the show’s dramatic and comic moments as the music itself.
Koch’s scenic design features two sides of the Memphis Recording Service that open up, a la at a street intersection, to reveal the Sun Studio within. The second level features large, plain windows in the background, the kind you’d expect at an auto parts store, which Phillips explains was the building’s original purpose. Koch puts the recording devices in a back room behind the area where the musicians perform.
Lauren T. Roark’s costumes fit the personalities of the various characters, from the wild outfit sported by Lewis to the somber black clothes favored by Cash, a handsome blazer worn by Phillips and, of course, blue suede shoes sported by Perkins that represent his signature tune.
Kirk Bookman adds dazzling lighting at the show’s ‘concert’ finale, Bart Fasbender provides background sound design and John Michael Presney is the production’s focused music director.
This rendition of Million Dollar Quartet features an especially strong performance by James Ludwig as Phillips, who reveals the undying passion and belief the impresario has in this new style of music that he knows is derived from the souls and sorrows of impoverished black musicians from the South.
Ludwig serves as the show’s narrator, speaking often from the apron of the stage to explain how his “boys,” all Southern and mostly poor, could find such depth in their music. His performance anchors the dramatic aspect of the play.
Sky Seals portrays the respectful and devoted Cash, who yearns to sing the gospel numbers at Columbia that Phillips vetoed at Sun. His deep, rumbling voice lends credence on Folsom Prison Blues and the sweet, simple Down by the Riverside as well as backup to the others.
Dominique Scott channels the unbridled passion and free-wheeling expression of the piano-pounding Lewis, who may be married to two women at the same time and who definitely doesn’t lack for self-confidence.
Presney doubles as the stiff-necked Perkins, who chafes over the fact that Elvis sang Blue Suede Shoes on Ed Sullivan’s national TV show, and that Presley’s adoring fans believe that he wrote the song, too. Like the other band members, Presney’s accomplished musical skills make the show sizzle with flair and flash.
Ari McKay Wilford has Elvis’ patented swivel down pat, although he appears shorter than the King. He captures Presley’s innate decency and humility, though, which works well in underscoring the respect these musicians had for Phillips.
Ryah Nixon does a fine job as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne, fashioning a sultry version of Fever and a lively I Hear You Knockin.’ Eric Scott Anthony portrays Carl’s brother Jay Perkins on bass and Zack Cossman brings pulsating percussion sounds to the set as Fluke.
After Lewis, Perkins and Cash do a down-home version of Brown-Eyed Handsome Man, Presney informs the audience that the songwriter of that tune, Chuck Berry, was forced by his recording company to change the title from Brown-Skinned Handsome Man. The day after that opening-night performance, St. Louis' famous native son Berry died at his St. Charles County home at age 90.
It was fun hearing Phillips’ singers do a number of songs from the era, many of them not theirs since their careers were just getting started. The show ends with a rocking, infectious delivery of numbers that definitely is more concert than musical.
Million Dollar Quartet is a fitting end to The Rep’s financially prosperous and critically acclaimed season. There’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on that set.
Musical: Million Dollar Quartet
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through April 9
Tickets: $28-$91.50; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.