Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Million Dollar Quartet
A newspaper the next day reported on this "Million Dollar Quartet"; all five (the four musicians and Phillips) would end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though Phillips had secretly recorded the session, the recording was not made available to the public until 1990. Million Dollar Quartet, now playing at the Old Log Theatre, is a lively and entertaining show based loosely on that 1956 jam session.
On one level, the play is just an occasion to enjoy great songs of the mid and late 1950smostly the foundational rock and rockabilly songs associated with these four phenomenal stars (for example, "Blue Suede Shoes," "Real Wild Child," "Folsom Prison Blues," and "Hound Dog"), but also songs associated with other musicians (e.g, "Who Do You Love?," famously performed by Bo Diddley, and "Long Tall Sally," a hit for Little Richard), spirituals (e.g., "Down by the Riverside"), folk songs ("Sixteen Tons"), and pop songs ("Memories are Made of This"). Only a small number of these songs are on the historical recording, but the audience was delighted to hear the 22 familiar hits that the show offers.
Eric Sargent, as Johnny Cash, probably does the best job capturing the voice and singing style of the originalthe low, rumbly Cash voice, and his talk-singing. (In contrast to Sargent's Cash, who towers over Presley and the other singers, the real Cash was 6' 2", only two inches taller than Elvis.) Eric Morris, as Jerry Lee Lewis, nicely captures Lewis' anarchic energy; there are moments, when, no doubt purposely, it is taken to the point of caricature. Matt Tatone's Carl Perkins and Frank Joseph Moran's Elvis Presley are also quite good at approximating the sound of their originals, and Moran also gives us some of Elvis's distinctive hip gyrations.
Mollie Fischer's Dyanne (not the real name of the woman Elvis brought with him, and no woman appears on the released recording of the actual jam session) offers her powerful voice on two numbers, with great effect in particular on a sultry rendition of "Fever." When the singers harmonize, as they do on "Down by the Riverside," the result is fabulous. Throughout, the music is excellent, including consistently fine work by the back-up musicians (Joshua Ackerley, Spencer Schoeneman, and Kyle Baker) onstage.
On a different level, the play is more about Sam Phillips then it is about his star singers. In a wonderful performance by Paul Rutledge, we learn about how Phillips developed them, helping each performer to find and bring out their distinctive sounds and encouraging their novel approaches. As Phillips points out, much of the success of Sun Records' music was finding white musicians who could mimic the energy and musical style that, at that time, was only found in the rhythm & blues and gospel of African-American artists. We also hear about the risks and hard times Phillips had keeping Sun Records, his labor of love, going. The play has the jam session coincide with important career decisions for two of the singers and for Phillips himself. This chronology deviates here from the real story, but it allows the audience to see the inevitably changing relationship of producers and the stars they promote.
Director R. Kent Knutson makes very effective use of a modest stageallowing the six main characters to interact together or in small groups on the side. Scenic and lighting designer Erik Paulson captures the intimate and unassuming feel of the Sun Records studio, with darkly lit solid red brick walls and rudimentary sound booth. A grainy, oversized photo of the real Million Dollar Quartet taken in 1956 hangs at the center of the stage. The giddy, un-self-conscious and as yet untrammelled faces take on a certain poignancy when, at the play's close, Phillips reminds us that for the four, there would not be nearly enough days as happy as this one in the years to come.
Million Dollar Quartet, by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, through January 21, 2017, at the Old Log Theatre, 5185 Meadville Street, Excelsior. For more information and tickets, call the box office at (952) 471-5951, or visit through oldlog.com.
Directed by R. Kent Knutson
Cast: Paul Rutledge (Sam Phillips), Matt Tatone (Carl Perkins), Eric Sargent (Johnny Cash), Eric Morris (Jerry Lee Lewis), Frank Joseph Moran (Elvis Presley), Mollie Fischer (Dyanne), Joshua Ackerley (Jay Perkins), Spencer Schoeneman (Fluke), Kyle Baker (Luther).