Listen up anyone with a pulse, feet to tap and hands to clap: Y’all need to be at the Laguna Playhouse to partake in a lot of shaking to “Million Dollar Quartet” between now and July 29.
It’s December 4, 1956, with Christmas already in the air, when four young men and one woman find themselves in the recording studio of Sun Records, a small label based in Memphis, Tenn.
Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and his girlfriend Dyanne, and newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis have gathered at the studio to record new music, catch up with each other and careers that are about to veer into the big time.
Not surprisingly, the gathering of such impassioned musicians careens from tumultuous to poignant and back. But, it evolves into a rafter-shaking, impromptu jam session, the core of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the Tony Award garnering Broadway musical.
Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux created the book, Mutrux the original concept, and Tim Seib directs. Jon Rossi, the show’s drummer, acts as musical director.
Based on a true story, the action begins when Carl Perkins, with his career in doldrums, arrives to record “Matchbox,” a hoped for new hit. Sun Records studio chief Sam Phillips however decides to pair him with Jerry Lee Lewis, a fearless upstart with more energy than a pack of ADHD first graders.
Austin Hohnke embodies the more introverted and slightly sour Perkins who actually wrote “Blue Suede Shoes,” the song that Presley widely got credit for. He’s not exactly taken with Lewis, and their exchanges are hilarious—both giving as good as they get.
Billy Rude who not so much plays Lewis but metamorphoses into him, comes close to stealing the show but holds back just enough not to upstage the rest of the crew—singing, dancing, playing the piano with hands, feet and butt, really, and then there’s the pas de deux with his mike stand. It’s noteworthy that Rude only received his BFA in Musical Theatre from the Chicago College of Performing Arts last May. “Real Wild Child” indeed.
When Peter Oyloe gets his turn at the mike as Johnny Cash, the mood shifts to contemplation, with Cash performing his iconic “Folsom Prison” and “Sixteen Tons” but also revealing a penchant for the spiritual music that embodies life-long core values.
Elvis, already a star, also drops in, and things get more interesting: We learn that that Perkins wrote the fabled “Blue Suede Shoes,” and that Elvis appropriated the tune at the behest of his manager, the notorious “Colonel” aka Tom Parker, to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Daniel Durston presents a credible incarnation of early Elvis. Although he does not really resemble him that much, he’s got his vocal inflections and physical mannerisms down—a little lighter on the hip waggling. At times there was something slightly distant about his presence; well caught since Presley reportedly had stage fright early in his career.
“Elvis” also brings his girlfriend Dyanne (Tiffan Borelli.) She possesses a set of pipes that compares well to soul singers of the time. She rocks “Fever,” Peggy Lee’s 1958 hit, and better yet, “I hear you knocking.” After initial shyness, she becomes one of the boys, albeit in a well-fitting green dress. In real life, the future “King” brought Marilyn Evans, a dancer.
Among all the shaking going on, the backstory of Sun Records does not get lost.
Sam Phillips, a DJ and radio engineer founded the radio station/recording studio in 1952 and, after releasing 226 singles, sold it in 1968. The studio is still known as the cradle of Rock’n Roll, even though Phillips, embodied by Hugh Hysell, expresses community doubts about its future on one hand and faith in it on the other. Although “youthquake” was not a catchword then, he knew that hordes of white kids, secretly were (to their parents anyway) going wild on black music and would passionately embrace the new sounds, especially coming from white men.
He was right.
Hysell energetically presents Phillips but avoids over-acting even in humorous or more poignant passages concerning the trials of making a living in a, to say the least, volatile industry. The sequence of Cash and the renewal of his contract is a case in point but, no spoilers here.
So then, back to Perkins who has brought his brother Jay, a bass player, and Fluke, a drummer. Those guys rock the house in their own right. Fluke (Jon Rossi) kinda stays in the background as far as antics go but, he drives the show’s beat. Jay (Bill Morey) gets every note and nuance out of his instrument. To call him a bass player is like saying Liberace was a piano player. Hell, he can play that thing backwards even and not miss a beat.
At performance end, the audience went wild. I only wish I had a video of the little blond girl, approximately six years old, dancing her heart out in the isle throughout the entire second act.
Makes one wonder how this culture ever wound up with a Justin Bieber.