HIGHLY RECOMMENDED 'Million Dollar Quartet': A Blast into Rock and Roll History
What happens when you put four music legends in one recording studio for a night? According to history, you get a jam session to remember, and the Marriott Theatre’s latest production transports the audience right to that legendary moment in 1956, when Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis met, and created a “Million Dollar Quartet.”
With book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, Million Dollar Quartet is set on December 4, 1956, the night that Johnny Cash (Christopher J. Essex), Elvis Presley (Rustin Cole Sailors), Carl Perkins (Shaun Whitley), and Jerry Lee Lewis (Nat Zegree, with a jaw-dropping talent on the piano) all found themselves at Sun Records in Memphis. What do they all have in common? Sam Phillips (David Folsom) took a chance on each of them, giving them their chance at fame. As we know in the present, Phillips certainly succeeded.
While some choose to stay with Phillips and others choose to take their career in a different route, this one night was simply about having fun playing the music they all loved, and would go down in history as a musical jam session like no other. The musical features hit songs from these artists that audiences are sure to recognize including Johnny Cash’s Sixteen Tons and I Walk the Line, Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes and Matchbox, Elvis Presely’s Hound Dog and Memories are Made of This, and Jerry Lee Lewis’ Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Great Balls of Fire.
Transporting the Audience Back in Time
Marriott Theatre’s space is in the round, and Director James Moye and his artistic team take advantage of that quality to the fullest in their production. The musical takes place inside Phillips’ recording studio, a night that could have occurred in complete privacy without the public knowing. Set Designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec utilizes a naturalistic approach, creating a room with instruments and microphones that can move about the stage as needed, and a recording booth that exists at a far end of the theater. Placing that room at the center creates a sensation for the audience of acting as flies on the wall, peeking into this historical moment.
Phillips not only plays a part within the action of the story, but also exists as a narrator, helping connect the dots for the audience of who these men are, where they were in their careers on this night, and how things change going forward. Moye cleverly places these moments outside of the studio, creating a path for Phillips around the space Folsom becomes our time traveling pilot, showing us the night through his eyes. He knows how to create a strong relationship with the audience full of humor and honesty, and Moye encourages this connection through the staging.
Power House Ensemble
This show first and foremost is about the music. It carries of the challenge of featuring four artists who made Rock and Roll history, and Moye’s cast, in this writer’s opinion, more than rises to the challenge – complete with playing the necessary instruments live on stage. Part of what was most impressive for this writer was that Moye and his cast truly re-created these individuals. After each number, the audience surrounding this writer at Press Opening roared with applause, which suggests they felt quite similarly about the talents presented.
Johnny Cash was known for his hard attitude and deep voice, and Essex, dressed in the iconic black wardrobe (Costume Designer Theresa Ham), brings those qualities to life – particularly in 16 Tons. Whitley brings out the southern gentlemanly charm of Perkins, while also wowing the audience with his guitarist abilities in numbers like Matchbox and See You Later Alligator. Presley as arguably the most famous of the four, which offers some large shoes to fill, but Sailors brings the stunning vocals that invited surrounding audience members to dance in their seats for Hound Dog. Jerry Lee Lewis was the youngest of the four on this night, and Zegree carries that awkward charm and desire to be seen as an equal that perhaps make him impossible not to love. The actor himself has been playing piano since he was three-years-old, which offers the opportunity to integrate tricks and stunts that elicited cheers from the audience at this performance.
Stunning vocals and a catchy score of hits make Million Dollar Quartet, in this writer’s opinion, a show to see. Marriott Theatre creates a rock concert that invites you to jump on your feet and dance along which, at this opening performance, everyone most certainly did.