One December night in 1956, something historic took place at Sun Records in Memphis. Rock ‘n’ roll was still a new sound. No one quite knew what to do with it. Sun founder Sam Phillips was either a mad man or a genius. That’s the setting for Flat Rock Playhouse’s hip-shaking new musical, Million Dollar Quartet, by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux.
Singer-songwriter Carl Perkins (played by Jeremy Sevelovitz) had a No. 1 hit in 1955 with the song “Blue Suede Shoes,” but came up short when Sun label mate Elvis Presley (the charmingly perfect Christopher Fordinal) performed it on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” eclipsing Perkins and launching himself into superstardom.
RCA bought Elvis’s contract from Phillips, who also brought a young Johnny Cash (the spot-on Johnny Kinnaird) into the spotlight, and had just discovered Jerry Lee Lewis. On this night, all four superstars found themselves in Sun Studios. There were crossroads personally and with the man who had discovered them. It was the only time the four legends were together in one place, and Quartet imagines what that must have been like. What did they talk about? What songs were played? Most of it is lost to time, save a recording of “Down By The Riverside.”
The show features both familiar and more obscure songs from the early 1950s. From “Hound Dog” to “Great Balls of Fire” and “I Walk The Line,” there’s more than enough to satisfy every music lover’s expectations.
Quartet is pure magic, from start to finish, under the direction of James Moye (who played Phillips on Broadway). And while it would be easy to slip into parody, the superb casting overcomes this inclination. The actors do not simply impersonate, but become the larger-than-life legends. If there is one standout star, it’s Nat Zegree as Jerry Lee Lewis. Zegree inhabits the rascally Lewis with ease. He also wows the audience by playing the piano with an uncanny ferocity, sounding like Lewis himself. The role is written to be a scene stealer, but requires such skill and focus that the whole show would fall apart in lesser hands.
Willie Repoley plays Sam Phillips. Ryah Nixon performs as Elvis’s girlfriend, Dyanne, who shines in a couple of knock-out numbers herself, once coaxed to the microphone. Eric Scott Anthony and Paul Babelay provide musical backup on bass and drums.
The show is a lean, mean 90 minutes, with no intermission, and leaves the audience on its feet, cheering by the end. It manages to tell the compelling tale of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, while also feeling intimate. The stage set is a recording studio, complete with what looks like a fully functional control booth behind a glass window. Flat Rock’s scenic and sound professionals are to be commended for the attention to detail.
WHAT: Million Dollar Quartet
WHERE: Flat Rock Playhouse flatrockplayhouse.com
WHEN: Through Saturday, May 21. Wednesdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday, Thursday, Saturdays and Sundays. $15-$40