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Review: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET at Solvang Festival Theatre

Review: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET at Solvang Festival Theatre
Billy Rude - Jerry Lee Lewis
Charlotte Campbell as Dyanne
James Gallardo as Jay Perkins
Photo Credit: Michael Collins

"Goodness Gracious!"

On stage at Solvang's Outdoor Theater, PCPA presents Million Dollar Quartet through July 28. Transporting the audience back in time to watch and listen as famed musicians Johnny Cash (Bill Scott Sheets), Jerry Lee Lewis (Billy Rude), Carl Perkins (Christopher Wren) and Elvis Presley (Nick Voss) assemble for an historic recording session at the humble Sun Records studio in Memphis back on December 4, 1956.

The show treats the audience to a combination of an early rock 'n' roll concert and a story of that time in American musical production when people like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley walked in off the street to fetch a recording contract from Sam Phillips (Scott Fuss). The plot revolves around Sam Phillips' expectation that these artists, whom he has nurtured and made an investment in, will remain with his recording label rather than seek larger fortunes elsewhere.

Million Dollar Quartet's cast meets the challenge of recreating an ephemeral moment of collaboration among legendary performers. The actors sing the songs and play the instruments. It's impressive. As Elvis Presley, Nick Voss vividly embodies the "King" of rock 'n' roll both when Elvis was shy and fresh to stardom and, later in the play, when he had developed a showy, swaggering style. Christopher Wren (who also served as the show's musical director) plays guitar with Carl Perkins' famed virtuosity as Billy Rude channels Jerry Lee Lewis' burning physicality and vigorous piano-playing. We could plausibly light the town of Solvang with Billy Rude's copious energy. The characters all serve as foils for one another: Bill Scott Sheets as Johnny Cash coolly contrasts with Rude's lively Jerry Lee Lewis. Bill Scott Sheets plumbs the depths of Cash's stiller waters with his rich, bass tones.

The visual elements of the production's design support our sense of taking a trip back in musical history. Set designer Kent Homchick has made what appears to be a full re-creation of Sun Records' studio space as it may have appeared on the very day of December 4, 1956. I could even see two reels on a distant machine slowly rotating as Sam Phillips recorded the session. Small details abound, like the bottom-most slat on a set of blinds twisting downward. Such subtlety of detail, suggesting a hint of decay in Sun Records, lends a texture of historical fidelity balanced with drama. As designed by Sara Curran Ice, the costumes, too, present each man's iconic style (such as Elvis' glossy black hair and Johnny Cash's all-black attire) while making a beautifully balanced stage picture.

The show's director, and PCPA resident artist, Kitty Balay, remarked that the play would appeal to multiple generations. Many families were in attendance, remembering or being introduced to these mid-century classics. The musical performances swept them up: everyone clapped along and stood standing for the musical finale, which offered some of these legends' most beloved songs.

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