Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Million Dollar Quartet uses flashbacks interspersed between some of the biggest hits these men recorded to depict how Phillips first met them and how he guided every member of the quartet to their initial success. The familiar songs include two of Cash's biggest hits, "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues," Presley's "That's All Right" and "Hound Dog," Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," as well as a couple of beautifully arranged gospel songs, "Down By the Riverside" and "Peace in the Valley," and even an upbeat pairing of "Sixteen Tons" and "My Babe."
The slight plot focuses on Phillips' desire to sign Cash for a three-year contract extension while also pondering whether or not he should accept RCA's offer to buy the company and his services. Presley, Cash and Pickens talk about the struggles they are dealing with and also their professional desires, while Lewis, who was just starting out at that time, tries to prove that he's just as good a performer as the rest of these talented men. With the addition of Presley's current girlfriend and two musicians who are in the studio to record with Perkins, an impromptu jam session happens that features the classic tunes ranging from gospel to rockabilly and rock.
Phillips' idea to record the majority of the evening turned out to be a smart one, as it was the first and last time these four legends ever performed together, though it was 25 years after the event before the recording was actually released. While the musical features some songs the men didn't actually perform that day, since most of the actual songs they sang were just snippets of familiar tunes they knew, and the dialogue isn't completely factual, the show's book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott successfully incorporates many actual events that happened at that time in the lives of these four men. With just enough plot and an abundance of familiar tunes, Million Dollar Quartet proves to be a beautiful ensemble piece that puts equal focus on Phillips and each member of the quartet and is a lovely glimpse into what was happening in the lives of these five famous men in 1956.
As stated in the pre-show announcement, the entire cast sing and play their respective instruments. The exceptional musical abilities of this production's cast are especially impressive due to the intimacy of Phoenix Theatre's smaller Hormel Theatre which brings the audience close to the stage, with the stadium seating providing a wonderful view of the action that makes each audience member feel like they are a fly on the wall on this legendary evening.
Director Scott Weinstein and the actors who play the four famous singers all have previous experiences with this musical. Weinstein directed numerous productions in the past, including the original Phoenix Theatre run, and Kavan Hashemian (Elvis Presley), Gregg Hammer (Johnny Cash), Chris Lash (Jerry Lee Lewis), and Skye Scott (Carl Perkins) have each played their respective characters in other productions of the show. Hammer and Scott are the only two cast members who didn't appear in the 2018 Phoenix Theatre production. Their singing and musical abilities are superb and all four men deliver nuanced portrayals that never delve into caricature.
Scott is excellent as Perkins. His guitar playing is outstanding, and his honest performance provides a clear understanding of the troubles Perkins was facing at the time in trying to find his next hit song while being constantly reminded that the biggest hit song he wrote, "Blue Suede Shoes," ended up being an even bigger hit for Elvis. Hashemian delivers a layered performance as Presley, allowing us to see how the man was confused by the success he found in Hollywood, not knowing what he should do next or whom he should trust. As Cash, Hammer's stoic, quiet demeanor and rich, deep voice beautifully evoke the memory and sound of the famous "man in black." As the energetic, rambunctious and playful Lewis, Lash is hilarious. His piano playing abilities are impeccable and his comic skills are top notch. Scott and Lash add several fun moments through their characters' constant comic bickering.
Kyle Sorrell delivers a beautifully sincere and natural performance as Phillips, who was called the "father of rock 'n' roll" for discovering not only these famous men but also Roy Orbison. From the well-crafted book and Sorrell's touching performance, the uncertainty and confusion Phillips was facing at this time in his life is clear. As Dyanne, the young woman Elvis brings to the studio, Alyssa Chiarello's delivers a sultry take on "Fever" and an upbeat, winning performance of "I Hear You Knocking." Austin Case on bass and Alex Crossland on drums portray the two men who were also in the studio that day and they are both incredibly skilled musicians. Case, Crossland and Lash also provide most of the effective musical underscoring during the dialogue scenes.
The majority of this show's creative aspects are carried over from the previous production, with Douglas Clarke's colorful scenic design depicting a realistic recording studio that used to be an auto parts store and Daniel Davisson's lighting providing plenty of rock concert style sizzle. Adriana Diaz's costume, hair, and makeup designs help transform the actors into the iconic, well-known rockers while also providing beautiful period touches. The sound design by Dave Temby delivers incredibly clear vocals and a rich sound that pulls you into the production.
With more than 20 well-known songs, Million Dollar Quartet is a nostalgic look into a famous night in the early days of rock 'n' roll. Phoenix Theatre Company's production has a very talented cast and impressive creative aspects, which make for a toe-tapping, crowd-pleasing, energetic, fact-based musical journey to the past.
Million Dollar Quartet runs through February 16, 2020, at the Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, 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.