Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation Proceedings and Our Town
Well, there actually was a day those blazing lights of early rock and roll played together–not for a concert, but a happenstance gathering that turned into a jam session. It happened on December 4, 1956, at the Sun Records recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee. A version of that once-and-only-once event forms the basis of Million Dollar Quartet, the musical now having a return run at Old Log Theatre. The show delivers an electrifying feast of popular hits associated with each member of the quartet, along with a few songs more generally tied to the era. The songs are served up by a hyper- talented cast who sing like their hearts are bursting and move like their pants are on fire.
Sun Records was owned by Sam Phillips, a music industry pioneer who recognized the thrust of a new sound that was igniting young people, especially young white people. It borrowed the sex and swagger from rhythm and blues, the sounds of Black music that was forbidden fruit to restless white youth. Phillips nurtured all four of those musical legends–Presley, Cash, Lewis and Perkins–early in their careers. The gathering on December 4th had not been planned, but savvy Phillips knew a story when he saw it. He himself dubbed it the "Million Dollar Quartet," then called a Memphis newspaperman to rush over and cover the big doings.
Phillips had a tape rolling while the music played, but it was not released until 1981. By then he'd sold Sun, and its catalog had been licensed to a British company that released the recordings in Europe. It wasn't until 1990 that RCA re-recorded the original tapes and "Million Dollar Quartet" was released in the United States. Sixteen years later, Floyd Mutrux, an American writer-producer-director, and Colin Escott, an English music historian, wrote the book for a stage musical that re-created the original jam sessions, adding some invented narrative to give it heft. After try-out runs at several regional theaters, it opened on Broadway in 2010, where it lasted over a year, followed by a year-long run off-Broadway.
Old Log first staged the show in 2016. Based on the rapturous response from the audience watching the show with me yesterday, it was a smart choice for an encore run. I am not much of a nostalgia seeker myself, and I was a young child in the '50s, so these are not the songs that accompanied the cauldron of my adolescence–and yet, I was hooked by the energy, the enormous talent, the well-crafted production and the fun. It's a big, joyful rock 'n' roll winner.
The song fest includes such notable songs as "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Matchbox" (hits for Perkins), "Folsom Prison Blues," and "I Walk the Line" (Cash), "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (Lewis), and "That's All Right" and "Hound Dog" (Presley). Among the twenty-three musical numbers is a rousing rendition of the old anti-war song "Down by the Riverside" sung by all four, and a lovely a capella rendition of the Christian hymn "Peace in the Valley." In fact, the majority of the songs played during the actual Million Dollar Quartet session were gospel tunes and hymns, reflecting the common denominator of deeply Christian values with which all four were raised. There were also quite a few old-school Bill Monroe bluegrass numbers. Mutrux and Escott's decision to jettison most of those in favor of familiar hits, with a lot more rock 'n' roll energy, is understandable and undoubtedly makes for a far more entertaining and successful show.
In addition to the four main attractions and Sam Phillips, who doesn't sing but plays a crucial role in the show, is Dyanne, the sexy, hip-swiveling girlfriend who was in tow with Elvis. Dyanne is also a singer and provides two numbers–"Fever," first recorded in 1956 (two years before the famous Peggy Lee version) and "I Hear You Knocking"–as well as serving as a listening ear in a scene with Cash and Perkins expressing restlessness about their work with Phillips, and in a couple of scenes with Phillips baring his concerns.
Elvis did in fact bring his then-girlfriend to the actual jam session, only she was a dancer named Marilyn. If any of these conversations took place, there surely is no record kept of them, but they serve the show well, letting us in on the issues roiling within each of these men who seem, to the outside eye, to have the world on a plate. That the narrative is managed without detracting from the main event, which is the songbook, is a sign of the fine work by Mutrux and Escott in constructing the show, and also to director Christine O'Grady's sure hand, keeping the 100-minute show (without intermission) moving seamlessly as backstories are presented and issues among those assembled are aired, never losing track of the music.
The casting in this production is terrific. Elijah Leer is amazing as Jerry Lee Lewis, with a juvenile mentality, insufferable arrogance, insane keyboard playing, and non-stop energy. Armando Harlow Ronconi is wonderful as Presley, genuinely humble and a bit overwhelmed by the whirlwind his life has become. Mitchell Dallman is a swell Perkins, seething to have another big hit after his break-out "Blue Suede Shoes" and nursing a chip against those who have surpassed him (Presley) or seem poised to do so (Lewis). Eric Sargent is excellent as Johnny Cash, conveying a dignity that sets him apart, as his music, with its folk and country roots, veered away from the others. All four sing in voices that bring to mind the originals without slavishly aping them.
The actual center of the piece is David Beukema as Sam Phillips, the heart of Sun Records, focused on the future of popular music and nurturing young talents who will create it. Beukema conveys Phillips' genuine passion for that mission. Myia Ann Butler looks, moves, and sounds great as Dyanne. For long stretches the part reduces her to window dressing, but Butler makes the most of the opportunities to display this character's talent and insights. On stage for the show's entirety are bass player Jay Perkins (who was Carl's brother), played by Kyle Baker, and drummer "Fluke," played by Spencer Schoeneman. Both musicians have opportunities to cut up with the rest of the guys, while providing the steady beats throughout the show.
Old Log has given this production a splendid physical production, with a great re-creation of the shabby Sun Records studio, down to the acoustic tiles covering the walls, designed by Erik Paulson, who also designed the atmospheric lighting; spot-on costumes designed by Meghan Kent, with sparkling changes for the inevitable finale; wigs by Cam Pederson that do what good stage wigs should do–be mistaken for the real thing; and excellent sound design by Nick Mrozack.
Jukebox musicals have taken a bad rap and are often viewed as cynical ploys to cash in on an existing songbook or the mystique of a pop music personality. Million Dollar Quartet frames its essence around one solitary event that reveals a primary launch pad for the mid 1950s rock and roll juggernaut, and in particular how the vision and tenacity of one man, Sam Phillips, brought it all to fruition. It's a jukebox musical that works well by making its theme clear, keeping it simple, and focusing on a damn fine music set. With solid performances and staging to boot, this Old Log remount is easy to recommend.
Million Dollar Quartet runs through February 17, 2024, at Old Log Theatre, 5185 Meadville Street, Excelsior MN. Tickets are $30.00 - $40.00, Student rush tickets evening of performance, in person, $20.00 with valid IDs. Wednesday 1:30 PM matinees are general admission. For tickets call 952-474-5951 or go to www.oldlog.com.
Book: Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux; Original Concept and Direction: Floyd Mutrux; Inspired by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins; Director: Christine O'Grady; Music Director: Kyle Baker; Scenic and Lighting Designer: Erik Paulson; Costume Design: Meghan Kent; Sound Design: Nick Mrozek; Hair, Makeup & Wig Design: Cam Pederson; Props Design: Lee Christiansen; Technical Director: Evan Sima; Stage Manager: Samantha Fairchild.
Cast: Kyle Baker (Jay Perkins bass), David Beukema (Sam Baker), Myia Ann Butler (Dyanne), Mitchell Dallman (Carl Perkins), Elijah Leer (Jerry Lee Lewis), Armando Harlow Ronconi (Elvis Presley), Eric Sargent (Johnny Cash), Spencer Schoeneman (Fluke drums).