Fort Worth — December 4, 1956…and there’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on.
Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis—a Million Dollar Quartet for sure—are rockin’ and rollin’ for one night only at the Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tenn. They’re playing for the fun of it, barely grown-up boys showing off for each other and for Sun’s legendary record man Sam Phillips, the guy who discovered every last one of them.
And lucky us, we get to listen in.
For those of you not feeling old enough these days, it will be 60 years next month since that once-in-forever night—captured in an iconic photo of the four singers clustered around a piano. So young, so talented, so sure. “I just wish,” says Sam (Bob Hess) in one of his many asides to the audience at Casa Mañana, “that every one of my boys could have had a little more happiness in their lives.”
Casa’s good-lookin’ production of this popular show (with a nifty off-center studio interior designed by Josh Smith) brings together a killer song list (“Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire” and a couple dozen more) and a talented cast of singer-musicians. And they all perform live—on guitar, piano, bass, drums and more—under the music direction of James Cunningham (Casa’s Les Misérables and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story).
It’s an engaging show, with bright costumes by Tammy Spencer and nicely contrasting spotlight-to-shadows scenes from Samuel Rushen. One grumble, though: the “wall of sound” approach taken with some of the big, raver songs of the night. Listen to the original hits, and you’ll find both vocals and instruments (mostly guitar) have a distinct, clear sound—just like “ringin’ a bell,” as Chuck Berry would say. Here, the audience has to get past too much over-miked noise to hear the performers. This wasn’t a problem for the Buddy Holly Casa produced not long ago, so the different outcome is a mystery.
Zach Cossman (Fluke) and Brandon Ellis (as Carl Perkins’ brother Jay) set the musical backbeat for the show on drums and bass, and make the most of a few quietly comic moments onstage. Alyssa Gardner does a respectably torchy rendition of “Fever” (she plays the fictitious singer Dyanne, Elvis’ girl du jour), but her eye-candy role still seems tacked on. Trent Rowland is more cute puppy than hound dog as the young Elvis, his clear voice flying high in “That’s All Right Mama” and “Peace in the Valley” but needing more resonance for the down-low notes of “Memories Are Made of This.” He’s a shy charmer, though, especially set against Sean McGibbon’s impishly hyperactive Jerry Lee Lewis, who bangs the piano, wiggles his bum, and rolls his eyes at Dyanne like a Harpo Marx gone mad (well, madder). The script only gives him a PG, soft-pedal version of Lewis’s edgy sexual persona—but McGibbon does sound impressively like the “real wild child” himself.
John Michael Presney crafts a terrific Carl Perkins, his gutsy voice and wonderfully jangling guitar just right for “Blue Suede Shoes” and other hits by this hardscrabble star. Christopher Damiano is a brooding study in black as Johnny Cash, a simple man on the edge of bigger things. Damiano plays a fine guitar, but it was his voice that started audience members nodding and smiling as he sang lower, and then lower again, for “I Walk the Line.”
Director Hunter Foster (who debuted at Casa with last season’s Spamalot) knows this show well: he appeared in the original Broadway MDQ and has directed three regional productions. Perhaps because he’s been over the ground before, then, Foster seems comfortable emphasizing some of the more emotional notes of the script by Colin Escott (Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll) and Floyd Mutrux (American Hot Wax).
That works especially well in tense exchanges among Cash, Perkins and Presley, who are grateful to Sam Phillips but know the big dogs of the music business—RCA, Columbia and the like—hold the keys to fame and fortune for all of them. And it gives Bob Hess room to build an unusually heartfelt and memorable portrait of Sam Phillips.
Hess has a tricky job. At times, Sam serves as the show’s narrator and as a warm-up guy for the audience—but he’s also a character living through this million-dollar night and facing a tough choice. If “the suits” sign his boys to bigger, better contracts, will he take the corporate offer and go along?
Sam is a lover, and his affection for these four “boys” and the business he’s created is the framework of the story. He loves the recording studio he wired with his own hands, loves giving these young talents “the courage not to sound like everyone else.” He even loves driving around the country with a trunk full of vinyl and chatting up the deejays. We know what happened, more or less, to the members of the million-dollar quartet. But we’re not so sure about Sam Phillips. Hess makes us care about him—and hope that this “father of rock ‘n’ roll” got his share of the glory.
“Such a night!” he grins, throwing his arms wide. And we can’t help but agree.