BWW Reviews: A Night on the Town with a MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET
The turning of the tape reels. Two, grey circles that were constantly moving in the dimly lit background of Sam Phillips' recording studio. They rolled on amidst private conversations, arguments, and the performance of some of the greatest songs in the history of music. The reels were constants. Recorded history has very few of these consistencies to speak of which makes preservation much harder, but as told by the cast of Million Dollar Quartet at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, WI on May thirteenth, one night in December of 1956 will live on for future generations. A musical written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux takes the concept of recording history and flips it on its head.
From the odd way in which Johnny Cash held his guitar, Jerry Lee Lewis' quirky mannerisms, Carl Perkins' laughable facial expressions, and Elvis Presley's swagger, the company of actors captured what audiences have come to expect of the musical legends. A troupe of extraordinarily talented individuals has found their way to Wisconsin's capital, guitars, pianos, and harmonicas in hand. Instruments which eachmember of the quartet could expertly play in any and all manners that their characters would have. Even the background players, Jay Perkins the bass player (Corey Kaiser) and Fluke the drummer (Patrick Morrow) were two of the most talented instrumentalists that could have graced that stage. The opening night audience erupted in applause when Kaiser played his full sized, wooden bass backwards, upside down, laying on the stage floor, or when he allowed his brother Carl Perkins (James Barry) to perform while standing atop the instrument. This cast of triple threat actors kept spectators on their toes.
Derek McLane's industrial scenic design created an atmosphere of change. As Phillips kept reminding his performers that the studio used to be an auto parts store, audiences were reminded of the humblebeginnings of the Rock and Roll phenomenon. Fading signs for old businesses, people, and places stamp each segment of brick that surrounds Sun Records' studio, which were just as captivating as the songs whose melodies brought back memories of toe tapping childhood years in a grandparent's house. Every aspect of the show practically screams nostalgia.
What did not seem to fit into the grand scheme of things was the part of Dyanne. While her presence in the studio with some of the greats was an interesting plot point and her relationship with Presley made his character more dynamic, she seemed like nothing more than an afterthought. Her banter was refreshing as the only female company member, but her two solo songs could have easily been cut. Kelly Lamont, who played Dyanne, did have a timeless vocal quality, but diction should never be sacrificed for stylistic quality. For at least eight minutes of the show, though Lamont's notes were ringing throughout the theatre, the lyrics simply were not landing. It was in those two separate moments that the design of the studio became so much more intriguing since misunderstanding what was being sung was unbearable.
The true battle for audiences lies in the question "Who do you love?" which is one of the first couple of songs that rattles off the show. By the final curtain, it is a nearly impossible question to answer. Does one love Tyler K. Hunter's sassy, gyrating Elvis? Barry's sarcastic and electric Carl Perkins? John Countryman's (a surname that is impossibly perfect for his character) fun loving and down home Jerry Lee Lewis? Or Scott Moreau's haunting, resounding Johnny Cash? Between the four and their spunky producer Sam Phillips (Vince Nappo), it's tough to exit the Overture Center with a top contender. That is what speaks volumes of the show itself, that one can walk into the show with a stake in Team Cash and leave cheering for Team Lewis.
Million Dollar Quartet brought Madison back to a simpler time of the 1950's, when music was fighting in a revolution. It brought an era of music back into current popular culture so that the newest generation can appreciate its quality. Most of all, it brought an entire audience to its feet.
What did this show prove? Some nights are worth a million bucks.