The Hippodrome's production of Million Dollar Quartet largely succeeds in providing the audience with the experience of being a fly on the wall during a December 4th,1956 one night only recording session at Sun Records. Folks, this thing actually happened.
And as much as this show is a review, it also has enough drama to function as a sort of historical play. The story being: An impromptu jam session occurs when Jerry Lee Lewis (Brady Wease), Elvis Presley (Joe Boover), Johnny Cash (Colin Barkell), and Carl Perkins (Sam Jones) happen to find themselves at Sam Phillip's (Hugh Hysell, also the Director of the play) Sun Records Recording Studio along with Fluke on Drums (Benny Cannon), Brother Jay on Stand-up Bass (Justin Bendel), and the lone feminine presence of one "Dyanne" (Cali Newman) - Elvis's girlfriend of the moment and a rather mysterious character who I've come to discover was actually Marilyn Evans. If you'd like to understand how this fascinating character came to be called Dyanne, CLICK HERE.
So the shortfalls, few though they may be: Three of the four aren't entirely up to the task of looking and physically acting like their counterparts. And what I'm saying here is Jerry Lee Lewis was absolutely solid and on point!
Having said that, I took a look at the cast members of just about every other production of Million Dollar Quartet, and it was kind of the same thing - Jerry Lee Lewis looks like Jerry Lee, and the the others don't quite find the swagger of their stars. I'll say however, relatively speaking, the HIPP cast nails it far better than most so maybe this criticism is off the table. If for no better reason, when the singing starts, the criticism ends. Our belief is suspended, we buy these characters as who they are and simply go with it. And besides, who can really ever come all that close to representing these bigger-than-life legendary figures anyway? (Did I hear someone say Andy Kaufman?)
As Jerry Lee Lewis, Brady Wease struts, groin first followed by body, into every situation he encounters. Part rascal, part charmer, part rabble-rouser. The only thing missing was that Jerry Lee Lewis was tough enough to beat the shit out of his counterparts except for Johnny Cash. We don't see much of that toughness (Wease plays it leaning a bit fey), but boy, does he steal the show. He also manages to jump higher than humanly possible and play the piano with the tip of his shoe, upside down and backward. it's a tour-de-force performance.
(I've discovered that in every production of Million Dollar Quartet, the Jerry Lee Lewis character ultimately steals the show with the choicest lines and most hip-shakin' songs. Although Elvis occasionally hip-shakes back and Johnny Cash doesn't have to do much except glare and dress in black to show this punk what's up.)
Johnny Cash, Elvis, and Perkins, when they start singing, you start to believe. Cash in particular, when he finds that lowest of low notes on Folsom Prison Blues "...I hang my head and cry", it results in spontaneous applause. If you can resist that, you're not human.
The tension and excitement between the characters is palpable, and when the central dilemma of Johnny Cash revealing he's leaving Sun Records for a more lucrative contract at Columbia, the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan.
Sam Phillips comes across as rather sympathetic, which works for the play. The real Sam Phillips may have crystallized the super-stardom of these famed fellows, been a sound genius, and helped usher in African American blues and soul to popularity, but many of those black artists died penniless, while Mr. Phillips did quite well for himself. That pesky "No Royalty" clause, don't you know. Dare I quote him, “If I could only find a white boy who could sing like a Negro, I could make a million dollars.” Then he finds Elvis, naturally.
On the other hand, he did help to make a super-star out of Howlin' Wolf, ushered in the era of rock-n-roll, recorded a legacy of insanely great music, and invented a whole bunch of recording techniques on which much of popular music should say thank you to, if they ever took the time to look backward and remember. More on Phillips HERE.
But I'm pissing in the soup. This show is an absolutely high-energy well directed pleasure, and the audience with who I shared opening night spent the last four numbers cheering and clapping on their feet. Each of the actors has a remarkably strong voice and great talent on their particular instruments. Together, they marry beautifully in harmonic rockin' resonance. "Dyanne" brings her own kind of energy to the proceedings singing and dancing to stand-outs like I Hear You Knocking and a steaming-hot rousing version of Fever.
The fact is, the audience will know every damn song in the show which makes for a thoroughly rewarding experience. I have to also give credit the the musical chops and acting of the back-line, Fluke and Brother Jay. Absolutely solid drumming and bass playing - the important foundation on which everything else rocks. There's an especially great moment where Brother Jay does something pretty wild with his giant double bass, and I'll not describe it here so that, dear reader, you'll have the pleasure of the surprise.
The sound is such that everything can be heard beautifully. I always want those guitar solos to pop out a little more, but that's my own triviality. The sound work by Amanda Yanes pays off.
Sun Records looks great (lighting by Robert P. Robins and Scenic Design by Timothy J. Dygert) with neon, bright bursts of color that somehow light the place up while at the same time, suggesting the dark of night in the unseen exterior. Note the attention to detail with the spinning tape reels inside the sound booth. At first, I thought they should stop between songs, But then I thought, no, this guy Phillips would keep those things going so as not to miss any of the magic.
I spoke to Bryan Mercer, the musical director, about the production. Of course his polish is evident across the board, but these actors who have performed this show before came to the table, game on. Something is always happening on stage in quite organic fashion with deft direction by Hugh Hysell.
You will get some history, some great acting chops, you'll be thrilled when each character opens his or her mouth and begins to sing the memories from your life, you'll be blown away with the talent on the stage and the musicianship of the ensemble, and I can't think of a better way to support the Hippodrome than to buy tickets for you and your friends and experience the many pleasures of Million Dollar Quartet. A great Summer musical treat.
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET - HIPPODROME THEATRE
Book by COLIN ESCOTT And FLOYD MUTRUX
Directed by HUGH HYSELL
CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS: https://thehipp.org/million-dollar-quartet/