Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's reviews of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, West Side Story in Concert and Red
Million Dollar Quartet is set on December 4, 1956, when Cash, Lewis, Perkins and Presley all end up together at Sun Records' recording studio in Memphis. All four men got their start at Sun, under the guidance of the company's founder, Sam Phillips. Throughout the night, the foursome joke around with each other and talk to Phillips about their past struggles and current woes in finding their next hit record. They also sing songs that range from rockabilly to rock, country and gospel. With a few additional musicians who are at the studio to record with Perkins that day, and a girlfriend Elvis has brought with him, an impromptu jam session follows and Phillips has the smart idea to record the entire thing. The plot of the show is slight, with the major conflict hinging on Phillips wanting to get the elusive Cash to sign a contract extension. There are also several short flashback scenes incorporated fairly well into the script to show how these famous men first came to Phillips and how he guided them to their initial success.
This was the only time these four legends ever performed together and the recording of the session wasn't commercially released until 25 years after that fateful night. All four men were in their early 20s and at the very beginning of their careers at the time this jam session happened. Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, who wrote the book for the show, incorporated many elements of the events of the quartet's lives that year into the show, including Presley's first feature film, Love Me Tender, having just been released and that just a year before this session happened, Phillips had to sell Presley's contract to RCA in order to keep Sun Records open. Though the dialogue isn't factual and the songs include several hits that the men didn't actually play that day, the entire show comes across as a glimpse into what was going on in the lives of these five famous men at that time in their lives.
The musical is written as an ensemble piece, so we get to know a bit about what is happening with all of the quartet, plus Phillips, on this day in 1956. After his first Hollywood film, Elvis and has come back home to Memphis but he doesn't know what he should do next. Perkins is trying to find the right song for his next hit, while Lewis is doing his best to prove to everyone that he is a singer who will someday become as big of a star as these other men. Phillips can't decide if he should sell his company to RCA, which would mean he'd get the chance to work with Presley again, or stick with being his own boss, and he's also struggling to find the right time to spring the contract extension on Cash.
This production is in very capable hands as director Scott Weinstein and the quartet who play these famous singers all have previous experience with this show and portraying these men. A pre-show announcement states that all of the cast are playing their instruments and that no one is faking it. The fact that all four of these guys are able to not only deliver somewhat nuanced performances of these iconic music legends while playing an instrument without delving into caricature or an impersonation is especially impressive.
Cash is portrayed as the stoic and sensitive member of the group and Bill Scott Sheets' solid stage presence and spectacular and clear deep voice immediately evoke the persona of the man who would be known as "The Man in Black." Sheets' performances of two of Cash's biggest hits, "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues," are superb. Christopher Lash plays the flashier role of Jerry Lee Lewis, which he does with relish, high energy, good comic timing, and impeccable piano skills. Kavan Hashemian's Elvis has the requisite clear voice and Presley's signature fast and furious dance movements, and his performances of "That's All Right" and "Hound Dog" are beautifully done. Kurt Jenkins' exquisite guitar skills are matched by his strong vocals and nuanced portrayal of Perkins.
Sam Phillips was dubbed "The Father of Rock 'n' Roll" since he discovered these men (as well as Roy Orbison), and Kyle Sorrell does very well in narrating the piece and instilling the character of Phillips with uncertainty, doubt and confusion, along with a steadfast drive. The interactions he has with each cast member and the flashback scenes are infused with realism. As Elvis' girlfriend Dyanne, Alyssa Chiarello delivers a solid fictional character along with a lush, blues-infused take on "Fever" that is excellent. The entire group achieves some beautiful harmonies with the traditional gospel song "Down by the Riverside" as well as upbeat tunes such as a combination of "Sixteen Tons" and "My Babe," which Sheets and Jenkins turn into a powerful duet. Backing up the group are bassist Austin Case and drummer Alex Crossland, who are exceptional.
Music director Alan Ruch and the cast clearly understand the intricacies of the music they are playing and how important these men are, and it shows in the clarity and power of the sound the musicians achieve. Douglas Clarke's scenic design does well to portray this recording studio that used to be an auto parts store, with nice background touches to evoke neighboring buildings and signs. Adriana Diaz's costumes and Kelly Yurko's hair and makeup perfectly achieve the period and look of these famous characters. The lighting design by Michael J. Eddy delivers some beautiful and lush images, while Dave Temby's sound design delivers crisp and clear vocals and musical notes throughout.
With a superb cast who deliver memorable performances, Phoenix Theatre's production of Million Dollar Quartet is not only sensational, but a glimpse into one famous night in the early years of these incredibly successful musicians.
Million Dollar Quartet, through April 15th, 2018, with performances at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Director: Scott Weinstein
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.