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Review: Jukebox Musical MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET at Chappaqua Performing Arts Center

Origin Story of Rock 'n' Roll Runs through May 22

Review: Jukebox Musical MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET at Chappaqua Performing Arts Center
Million Dollar Quartet cast recreates historical photograph that is displayed on stage. Credit > Jason Niedle

Michael Jackson. Tina Turner. Temptations. Carole King. Cher. Billy Joel. The list could go on. And on. So-called jukebox musicals have been around a long time, but their streak as a recent Broadway money-making machine was jump started by the phenomenal box-office success of Mamma Mia! (Abba) and The Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons).

The basic formula couldn't be more simple. Take the hit songs of iconic pop artists, stitch together an origin story that's interesting but not too intrusive, and cast uniquely talented multi-hyphenate performers who can sing, dance, act, and even play instruments to credibly pay tribute to the entertainer whose brand name sells seats.

All jukebox musicals exploit the undeniable pedigrees of their subjects. In a class of its own, though, is Million Dollar Quartet (MDQ), which boasts a peerless pedigree that's hard to match for historical chills. The Westchester Theatre production is on stage through May 22 at Chappaqua Performing Arts Center (the classically designed former auditorium of Readers Digest). For tickets >


If "Westchester Theatre" sounds familiar to ardent Hudson Valley theatergoers, that's because it has its own impressive pedigree - Westchester Broadway Theatre (WBT) in Elmsford. A regrettable casualty of the pandemic, the final curtain of that landmark dinner theater came down in fall 2020 after more than 200 musicals during a 45-year run.

As the new theater's house manager informs the audience, "Due to Covid and losing our lease, we are now the Westchester Theatre. One thing you will not see is the prime roast beef (which happened to be this writer's go-to entree every time I supped there. The cuisine always was satisfying, as were the professionally mounted musical productions. Now you can support nearby restaurants in the area to create your own pre-curtain dinner experience).

One thing you will see at the sleek Chappaqua venue is the performers more close up. I saw this show about six years ago at WBT, which employed a thrust stage that was semi-encircled on three sides by the well-fed patrons. The sightlines were excellent, if a little distant from the upper seats.

What I immediately was struck by as soon as this production hit the ground rockin' is the intimacy afforded by the theater's low stage (which was designed for business presentations). The lower sightline angle places audience and performers closer together than is typical of proscenium theater spaces. I felt like I was part of the action, which make a definite difference when the action is continuous, classic rock that rolls non-stop for a fast-moving 100 minutes.

Based on a once-in-a-lifetime recording session in December 1956 at the legendary Sun Records recording studio in Memphis, Tenn., the tightly-scripted and musically-rich Million Dollar Quartet reunites four forefathers of rock 'n' roll who were there at the creation to help forge the groundbreaking genre that would define a generation: Carl Perkins (Nathan Burke, lead guitar), Johnny Cash (Mike Potter, acoustic guitar), Jerry Lee Lewis (Trevor Dorner, piano), and Elvis Presley (Jacob Burton, rhythm guitar). Also in the cast is Taylor Kraft as sultry vocalist Dyanne, Mike Lucchetti (drums), and Ben Sheppard (bass).

The songs themselves never grow old and there's more than 25, including Cash's "I Walk the Line," Jerry Lee's "Great Balls of Fire," and Elvis's "Hound Dog."

Then there's Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," which of course everyone associates with Elvis and his landmark cover version. The true-to-life story we learn that revolves around this song is indicative of the behind-the-curtain anecdotal rhythm of the musical's efficient, storytelling book, skillfully (and amusingly) written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux.

Apart from the infectious, wall-to-wall music, which is rousingly played live on stage by all the actors, what makes MDQ a crowd-pleaser is the interpersonal dramas driven by the egos of four pop music pioneers.

Perkins can't come to grips with the irony of his landmark song's authorship being attributed in the public eye to Elvis Presley, who sang it on the hugely popular Ed Sullivan Show. Perkins was scheduled to sing it himself on a different variety show of that era when cruel fate stepped in. On the way to the show, he had a car accident that he survived but that killed his performance, and arguably had lasting impact on his career.

The jealousy triggered by Presley's rocketship rise is expressed in his being teased by the others about making movies in what they call "Hollyweird." Jacob Barton gives a good workout to Presley's famously pliant legs and loose-hinged hips that caused him to be shot only from the waist up on some of his television appearances. To hear the blue noses of the time complain, his were the hips from Hell!

Irascible and immature 21-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis, exuberantly played with great gusto by Trevor Dorner (who doubles as the show's musical director), upstages everyone with his frenetic antics. He gets on Perkins' nerves, who retaliates by purposely confusing him with the comedian Jerry Lewis: "I wouldn't pay 50 cents to see your movie."

The book plays on the performers' humble backgrounds. Presley, the model for the musical Bye Bye Birdie's Conrad Birdie, went from driving a truck to driving ladies wild. One of them comments, "I never heard a rich man write a song worth a damn." Perkins says "Drunks don't buy records," and Cash comes back with, "They just make them." The script is full of tongue-in-cheek, good ol' boy humor like that.

As Cash, Mike Potter's bass baritone vocals have an uncanny similarity to the voice of the Man in Black, which is how Potter is dressed, for full effect.

As Perkins, Nathan Burke picks a mean electric guitar that electrifies the score. Singing sexually charged numbers like Miss Peggy Lee's "Fever" and "I Hear You Knocking," Taylor Kraft's torch burns at a fever pitch. The backup musicians skillfully and energetically fill out the six-piece band.

After all is said and done, this really is the remarkable story of one Samuel Cornelius Phillips, played very broadly, and effectively, by Sean Casey Flanagan, who propels the narrative. He is the hero of this story.

Sam Phillips's gut instinct for talent put these fellas on the road to stardom and shepherded their early careers, operating from a humble auto parts shop-turned-recording studio - which is smartly simulated here by scenic design team Steve Royal and Adam Koch, and lighting designer Kirk Bookman. The colorful period clothing is by costume designer Jeffrey Meek.

The proceedings are vigorously directed with lots of style by Tim Seib. Kudos also to production stage manager Kenal Stevens.

Even as Elvis left Sun to sign with RCA Records, which offered to buy Phillips's mom-and-pop operation, the passionate, principled owner declined. "I'd rather sell 100 records by some kid than 1 million records working for somebody else," he tells the audience.

Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA Records for $40,000, which he needed to keep Sun Records solvent. Even though Cash and Perkins also rode off into the sunset, seeking bigger paydays with Columbia Records, Phillips made out okay, he assures us. He went on to discover the likes of "this kid out of Texas with a funny sounding name, Roy Or-bi-son."

Phillips was considered foolish for selling Presley's contract for the price he got, but in MDQ he tells us that he used the RCA money to buy "stock in a little company down the road called Holiday Inn, so if I'm a fool I'm a happy fool."

Apart from being hailed as "The Father of Rock & Roll," Phillips also is revered for his advocating racial equality in the early days of the business. He had a great ear for music and wasn't tone deaf either about social justice.

The audience gets more than its money's worth in this show. After the cast takes its bows, there is a mini-concert featuring all the performers that will knock your socks off.

If you're a rock 'n' roller - of any age - this is the show to see. Pompadours optional.

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