Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Million Dollar Quartet Christmas
Also see Gil's review of The Thanksgiving Play
The plot is slight and pretty much a retread of the first musical, though the follow-up does focus more on the holiday timing of the night this foursome came together (Presley was visiting from Los Angeles with his latest girlfriend to celebrate Christmas with his mother) along with including more than a dozen Christmas songs and reminiscences the four men, plus Sun Records' founder Sam Phillips and Elvis' girlfriend, share of past holidays. The main plot of the 90-minute, one-act musical centers, just like Million Dollar Quartet, on Phillips' struggle over the fact that the men he groomed to stardom have left him or are about to leave him for recording contracts at bigger labels, along with Presley's uncertainty of his move to Hollywood, and Perkins' struggle to become an A-list act. It also now fleshes out and adds in more information about the personal and professional demands that Presley, Cash and Perkins were experiencing at that time, including the recent letter Presley received from the Selective Service System which could result in him being drafted. "I wish they'd select someone else," he proclaims.
On one hand, the fact that this sequel is basically Million Dollar Quartet with holiday songs and other hits the four made famous that weren't featured in the first musical is a bit of a disappointment, especially since the characters of Sam Phillips and the cocky Jerry Lee Lewis aren't really given any new material and many of the same issues the quintet faced are repeated here. But, on the other hand, the sequel does provide more insight into the other characters, including fleshing out Elvis' relationship with his girlfriend Dyanne and providing some awareness into Cash's relationship with June Carter, whom he'd just recently met (he would divorce his wife and marry Carter 12 years later). And, most importantly, it's about the music, with more than 20 well-known songs and holiday classics exceptionally played and sung by the cast, which turn this show into a driving and energetic concert.
This show actually has much more of the "jam session" feeling that the actual event in 1956 had, compared to Million Dollar Quartet. Phillips was wise to record the music the group made that night and the 40+ track recording features short musical riffs of familiar tunes and gospel songs. This musical provides that same energetic, unrehearsed experience of a group of friends, who would just happen to go on to become famous rock and country stars, who have gathered to share their love of music and sing songs together. Also, the fact that the actual event did happen just a few weeks before Christmas and that on the actual recording the group did sing some Christmas songs gives this sequel some legitimacy. If the actual meeting the four had at Sun Records had happened in June, I can't imagine how the creative team could have pulled off a holiday version of the show.
The cast are all incredibly talented musicians and singers. The quintet of actors who play the five famous men in the show have all had previous experience in productions of Million Dollar Quartet, including Kyle Sorrell, who played Phillips in both the 2018 and 2020 Phoenix Theatre Productions, and Gregg Hammer, who portrayed Cash in both the 2020 production and the company's recent offering of Ring of Fire. Both do good work here, with Sorrell appropriately taut as the man who doesn't know what his future will be like when his biggest stars have left the label, and Hammer stoic and introspective as Cash. While the character of Cash is given a little less to do in this show than the other men, Hammer's performance of "Ring of Fire" is a major highlight. JP Coletta is flashy and completely full of himself (and also an amazing piano player) as the conceited Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sam Sherwood is appropriately conflicted as Carl Perkins; Coletta's rambunctious but skilled piano playing and Sherwood's exceptional guitar abilities are both constant highlights in the show. Unlike the other actors here and in previous productions of Million Dollar Quartet I've seen, including on Broadway, Daniel Durston's appearance is eerily spot-on as a young Elvis Presley, and Durston's confusion over Presley's quick Hollywood success combined with the uncertainty of what will happen to his career if he's drafted, are realistically depicted. Durston's beautiful vocals are also eerily reminiscent of Presley.
I've seen Phoenix actress Amanda Valenzuela in several shows in the last year, including just last month as Morticia in The Addams Family at Hale Centre Theatre, and she is always wonderful. Her Phoenix Theatre debut as Dyanne is no exception. She holds her own against the men in the show and creates a three-dimensional woman who truly understands that her relationship with Elvis will be short lived. Bookwriter Colin Escott (co-writer of Million Dollar Quartet) does a great job of incorporating just enough information about Dyanne into this show, much more than in the first musical. Valenzuela also provides fun versions of "Santa Baby" and "Mele Kalikimaka."
The group is backed by two other Million Dollar Quartet veterans, Chris Cerreto and Nathan Yates Douglass on drums and bass, respectively, who are just as talented and gifted as musicians as the rest of the cast. Musical director, supervisor, and arranger Chuck Mead does a wonderful job in giving the entire show an energetic feeling of both a rambunctious, off the cuff jam session and a fully fleshed-out country and rock concert.
Director Scott Weinstein has directed previous productions of Million Dollar Quartet, including the two at Phoenix Theatre, as well as Ring of Fire here last spring, so he has plenty of experience with ensuring the format of this type of musical succeeds. The creative team for both this production and the tour include the realistic scenic design by dots, and period perfect costumes by Izumi Inaba, with exceptional lighting design by Ryan O'Gara that explodes into a range of colors, and a crystal-clear sound design by Diego Garzón. Local designer Douglas Clarke's props feature many fun, period touches.
While there may not be much new to the story of this sequel of Million Dollar Quartet when compared to the original, Million Dollar Quartet Christmas still manages to provide enough insight into these real stars of rock and country music while also adding in their memories of past Christmas holidays to provide a nice connection to the audience's own memories. But it's the music that's the star here and having such well-known holiday tunes as "Blue Christmas," "Silent Night," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" sung by a talented cast portraying these famous men makes this a highly entertaining, joyful and thrilling, crowd-pleasing experience.
Million Dollar Quartet Christmas runs through January 4, 2022, at the Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or call 602-254-2151. For information on the national tour, visit www.mdqchristmas.com
Book by Colin Escott
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.