Lightning strikes right from the opening notes of “Blue Suede Shoes.”
On December 4, 1956, the four godfathers of rock 'n roll-- Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis-- staged an epic jam session at the recording studio of Sun Records in Memphis. After that evening they were forever dubbed the "Million Dollar Quartet."
Riverside Theatre's production of “Million Dollar Quartet” is a rollicking, rollercoaster affair. The show is a fascinating window into the lives of these four monumental talents (born between 1932 and 1935) in the early stages of their careers. Directed and choreographed by Keith Andrews, "Million Dollar Quartet" performs January 2–21 on the Stark Stage in Vero Beach.
Based around that historical event, the Tony Award-winning musical time travels the audience back to what became a flashpoint in rock 'n roll. The two hour fireball of a show with one intermission features a treasure trove of legendary numbers including "Blue Suede Shoes," "Fever," "Sixteen Tons," "Who Do You Love?," "Great Balls of Fire," "Hound Dog" "Ghost Riders in the Sky," and "Whole Lotta' Shakin' Goin' On."
Based on the book written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, Riverside's production features a splendid cast of singing/instrument-playing actors. Under music direction by James Barry it's a whirlwind of bold strains country, gospel and black rhythm and blues that helped give birth to rock 'n roll.
Jason Loughlin does a bang-up job as Sun Records owner Sam Phillips-- the ringmaster, father figure, and narrator of the musical session. Beyond the powerhouse music he fills in details about the backgrounds of these country boys. Called respectfully "Mr. Phillips" by the four performers, he comes across partly as mentor, but mostly as a fiercely independent businessman who's trying to keep his Sun Records afloat.
Phillips is strapped for cash. A year earlier, he sold off his biggest star-- Elvis-- to RCA Records. To keep Sun Record's engine purring, Phillips is working overtime to persuade Perkins and Cash to extend their Sun contracts for a few more years. But here's the rub: a little operation like Sun can’t match rival Columbia Records in the "big money" department.
Once a ramshackle place that housed an auto parts store, the Sun Records recording studio comes to life thanks to the original scenic design by Derek McLane and Adam Koch. It's an intimate room lined with sound cushioning walls, and just a few gold records dotting the walls.
Sam Cieri as Elvis has the moves down as well as the crooning, especially in "Long Tall Sally,” while Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash nails that distinctive, deep bass-baritone voice. Cash sang like he had lived every word of his song. Moreau performs a brilliant rendition of "I Walk the Line," Cash's first #1 hit.
Prior to that December evening Carl Perkins (James Barry) and Cash had signed contracts with Columbia Records moving on to a much more lucrative record offers and fame. The pair nervously dance around Phillips until the truth spills out. Beyond the barn-burning music, there is a buzzsaw of tension played out in the onstage dynamics and chemistry. Perkins, for one, is starting to come unglued, resenting that his signature "Blue Suede Shoes" was handed off to Presley to perform on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show.
A hotshot and wisecracking newcomer, Jerry Lee Lewis has just entered Phillips' orbit. A coiled spring with a mad gleam in his eye, Lewis (Nat Zegree) steals the show as a piano-pounding hellion with an ego as oversized as his sound. Dressed in baggy maroon trousers, high-top Converse All-Star sneakers, and a mop of dirty blonde hair swishing around his face, Lewis uncorks a series of startling acrobatic feats around and over the piano, bench seat and microphone.
Lewis showcases manic runs up and down the ivories, chords pounded out with his feet, and tunes picked out with his back to the piano. He croons, trills, shakes and shivers with joy. The ultimate show-boater, Lewis once set his piano on fire and played through the flames to upstage a closing act. His banter with Perkins is high-octane. Get ready for "Great Balls of Fire.” It brings the house down.
Elvis shows up with his girlfriend Dyanne (sassy crooner Sarah Ellis) who gives a moody, spine-tingling rendition of "Fever." She is a lovely contrast to an otherwise all-male play.
Lighting designer Yael Lubetzky spotlights the show, and sound designer Craig Beyrooti does a fine job ensuring that both music and vocals are crisp and clear. As for costumes, Molly Walz and Anna Hillbery's work is spot-on and enhances each character– the shabbily dressed Lewis was there to prove only one thing-- his prodigious talents.
"Million Dollar Quintet" is a fitting tribute to Riverside's new year capturing the one-off snapshot of the moment when rock and roll was born and rockabilly went mainstream.
By the way, the star-studded quarter never played collectively again. Grab a ticket!
"Million Dollar Quartet" has added two additional performances on Sunday, January 14th at 7:30 pm and Thursday, January 18th at 2 pm. With the added shows, the second and third week each have nine performances. Tickets, which start at $35, can be purchased by calling the Box Office at (772) 231-6990 or online at riversidetheatre.com.