Million Dollar Quartet, currently playing at Riverside Theatre, is fun, nostalgic and exhilarating. It is about early rock and roll music icons who performed together only once in their storied careers. The show is more like a rock concert than stage production, with the actors singing and performing on their instruments live.
First a little background about the most famous recording session in music history not involving the Beatles.
As with most legends, the account of events at Sun Records studio on December 4, 1956 varies as to who sang what songs when the four budding music superstars met and played together for the first and only time. But it really doesn’t matter, because if you see Million Dollar Quartet, this version of events far outshines any previous interpretations.
On that day four aspiring musicians – Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis – showed up more or less simultaneously at Sun Records and played an impromptu jam session. What they had in common was their bond with Sun Records owner/manager, Sam Phillips, who discovered each of them and recorded their first hits.
Phillips recorded the jam session but could not release it at the time because of conflicting contractual agreements, especially regarding Elvis, who was already a successful RCA artist. The recording was finally released in the US in 1990 as Elvis Presley – The Million Dollar Quartet.
The stage version of that seminal event in rock history, Million Dollar Quartet, was first performed in Daytona Beach November 2006, eventually making it to Broadway in 2010. Now the show is right here at Riverside Theatre.
The curtain rises in front of Sun Records recording studio in Memphis. Sam Phillips (played ably by Jason Loughlin) acts as emcee/raconteur throughout the performance, along the way providing a history of his Sun Records and vignettes of his first meeting with each individual artist. As the show progresses we get to know the musicians, their difficult lives, hopes and dreams. Elvis shows up with his girlfriend Dyanne (played by Sarah Ellis), a fictitious name but possibly a Vegas showgirl named Marilyn Evans. Apparently, no one seems to know for sure. Eventually all four of the principals are on stage together and start making music. Really though, the music IS the show so the musicians, individually and in combinations, are singing and performing from beginning to end. To close the show, each has his own “day in the Sun” so to speak.
The four actors representing these artists are outstanding. Scott Moreau (Johnny Cash) is spot on Cash both in his singing and speaking voice. Sam Cieri captures Elvis, especially singing ballads. James Barry (Carl Perkins), also musical director for the show, shreds on guitar and probably has the most challenging role since Carl Perkins, while an icon in the musical world, never became legendary to the general public. As Perkins laments in the show, he wrote and sang a million-selling hit record with “Blue Suede Shoes,” but the song will forever be associated with Elvis. Nat Zegree steals the show playing an out-of-control Jerry Lee Lewis, who was himself often out of control. Zegree’s showmanship and virtuosity suck the oxygen out of the theater.
The highlights – and there are many – feature music of the four artists together and individually. While the actual session back in 1956 was heavy on gospel music, the stage show features primarily hits of the time, some actually recorded by these artists, but many made popular by others. In fact only three of the 23 songs performed in the show were actually written by the artists themselves. Back in the 1950s artists did not typically write most songs they recorded as they do today. (If you catch Riverside’s first show of next season, Smoky Joe’s Café, you will see that many hits of the 50s and 60s were written by the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, songwriters, but not performers. That includes Elvis’s hit, “Hound Dog.”)
The two backup musicians, David Sonneborn, as Fluke Holland, and Sam Weber as Carl’s brother, Jay Perkins, are also outstanding, especially Weber, who plays on and around his upright bass like it’s a Jungle Gym.
Million Dollar Quartet will continue through January 21. For tickets call the box office at(772) 231-6990 or online at www.riversidetheatre.com.