BWW Review: Cumberland County Playhouse's Magnificent MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET
Ross Griffin's dramatically flamboyant portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis in Cumberland County Playhouse's magnificent production of the Tony Award-winning Million Dollar Quartet would be reason enough to buy a ticket to see the fast-moving, tune-filled salute to one of music's most legendary nights that didn't end up with some star dying in a plane crash or surviving a car wreck. But director Bryce McDonald ups the ante by surrounding Griffin with a superb cast of actor/musicians (including Daniel W. Black, Stephen Edwards Horst, Edward La Cardo, Britt Hancock and Molly Dobbs) who match his performance on almost every level, guaranteeing that audiences will be begging for more, even while cheering wildly as the curtain descends.
A musical retelling of producer Sam Phillips' serendipitous gathering of four of music's most notable Southern boys - Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley - at his Memphis-based Sun Records Studio on December 4, 1956, Million Dollar Quartet will set your feet to tapping out a steady rhythm from its very first moments (a rollicking performance of Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes") and will keep your heart pumping right along to the very final notes of Jerry Lee's "Whole Lotta Shakin'." Considered a seminal moment in the history of rock and roll, the night is brought to life onstage in a manner that gives each legend his moment in the spotlight, while contrasting the men's various personalities and styles of performing, doing business and living life.
The story of how the now iconic moment came to be, indeed how the legend was born - which became known the world over as "Million Dollar Quartet" after a story published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar in the early 1980s, spawned by the release in Europe of recordings from the legendary jam session that grew out of the four men stopping by Sun Records on a chilly December evening in 1956 - is related throughout the musical, with Phillips himself (played in Crossville by Playhouse favorite Britt Hancock in a compelling performance that is just as thrilling as any of the more theatrical turns by the show's four headliners) as guide, taking audiences through his history with each of the men as they went from good, if poor, ol' boys to household names.
It's an invigorating and enlightening journey, to be sure, and as Phillips tells how he met Perkins, Lewis, Cash and Presley, the legendary figures become more accessible, their stories amazingly similar (each man came from dirt-poor beginnings in the rural South) and the stuff of which music history, particularly music in Memphis, is made. The show's score makes grand use of each performer's best-known songs, ensuring a catalogue of songs perhaps unparalleled in the evolution of rock and roll music, told from a decidedly Tennessee perspective.
The city of Memphis and its musical roots has provided Broadway with a lot of inspiration - in addition to MDQ, there's the Tony Award-winning Memphis the Musical, which ran for almost three years from 2009 to 2012 - and Million Dollar Quartet captures the city's down-home, barbecued flavor with a tremendous sense of style that fairly radiates from within. The show's heart, as expansive as the mighty Mississippi River that separates the Volunteer State from Arkansas, reverberates dramatically and thematically in the two hours of music that seems virtually unstoppable. Leaving the theater, if you aren't still caught up in the raucous sense of time and place that is apparent throughout Million Dollar Quartet, then you just haven't been paying attention and you need to buy another ticket for a return trip to the Bluff City.
Director McDonald's ensemble is made up of an extraordinary group of multi-talented individuals (this is not an easy show to cast, make no mistake about that!) who are superbly focused actors and astoundingly gifted musicians, each one thoroughly committed to giving audiences the best they are capable of, and much to talk about on the drive home. McDonald's practiced eye ensures the show is easy to watch, he blocks the show effectively to give each character his or her due (Molly Dobbs is eye-poppingly gorgeous in the role of Elvis' girlfriend Dyanne, who more than holds her own with all the testosterone in the room, creating a memorable character all her own; her "Fever" is captivating, to say the least) and he keeps the action moving along at a good pace, giving audiences enough time to witness and to comprehend what transpires onstage before them, while never allowing minds to wander off on some crazy, ill-conceived tangent.
Visually, the production is period-perfect: Ashlynne Ludwig's costumes convey the late 50s with style and flair apropos of the decade, while Christopher Van Tuyl's expressive lighting design bathes the onstage action in such a way that it helps to not only illuminate the venue, but evokes dramatic elements of each man's story. John Partyka's artful scenic design recreates the historic Sun Record Studios down to the last detail (when I lived in Memphis, it was just around the corner from the address) and Erin Skelley Holderman's terrific properties design helps effectively define the time and place of Million Dollar Quartet.
Ron Murphy's deft musical direction is felt throughout the show as one number dovetails into the next, translating into a rock and roll concert of legendary proportions. Kudos are due, as well to Tony Greco, as Carl Perkins' older brother Jay, and Chet Hayes as Fluke, the drummer - the two men are onstage from start to finish, ably giving musical support to the show's eponymous stars while playing believable characters, as well.
Griffin's performance as Jerry Lee Lewis is a star-making turn if ever there was one - native Tennessean and Belmont University alum Levi Kreis took home the Tony Award for his Broadway performance in the role - and he makes the most of it, delivering the goods and showing off his spectacular abilities to perfection. He manages to capture Lewis' outlandish and outrageous persona, bringing the controversial showman to life with a very real sense of musicianship and zealous ambition that keeps your attention riveted to him. But he never veers over the line into caricature, ensuring a respectful if slightly bawdy treatment of the man. His "Real Wild Child" is energetic and exciting, while his "Great Balls of Fire" allows the actor to pull out all the stops - to amazing effect.
Longtime CCP leading man Daniel W. Black, cast in the role of Carl Perkins (arguably the least well-known of the four performers) gives a thoroughly believable performance, expertly conveying Perkins' own concerns for his lack of support from Phillips and what he believes to be Presley's betrayal of him (Presley sang "Blue Suede Shoes," Perkins' own first hit, on The Ed Sullivan Show, much to the detriment of Perkins' career achievements). Black's spirited rendition of Perkins' hit - the number that threatens to Raise the Roof of the Playhouse in the show's initial moments - clearly sets the standard for what follows.
Tall, dark and handsome, Stephen Edwards Horst embodies Johnny Cash to the proverbial "T," eschewing what could have been a stereotypical portrayal of the man in black in favor of a more authentic and deeply genuine-feeling characterization. In fact, Horst's interpretation of Cash is rather reserved and understated, allowing the actor to deliver a reading of the character that seems to come from a fresh and unfettered perspective. His second act opening "Sixteen Tons" is powerful, while "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line" both hew closer to the sound we most closely associate with Cash.
As Presley, Edward La Cardo captures the spirit of the performer before he became the entertainment behemoth known as ELVIS, demonstrating an ability to capture his small-town charm and undeniable talents without ever going over the top. Instead, La Cardo's Elvis remains easy to identify with, despite everything we know about him now, and he is almost disarmingly gracious in his boy-next-door way. His "Long Tall Sally" will knock your socks off!
Finally, Hancock gives a stunning performance as Sam Phillips, showing off the real man behind the fictionalized character with finesse. Hancock never wavers - not even for a moment - in playing Phillips warts and all, to give audiences a sense of who the man was, even as he is saluted by the four superstars as "the father of rock and roll."
Million Dollar Quartet. Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. Original Concept and direction by Floyd Mutrux. Inspired by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkinis. Directed by Bryce McDonald. Musical direction by Ron Murphy. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse. Through June 9. For reservations, call (931) 484-5000 or go to www.ccplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).