Pillow Talking’s Review of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET
Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET at the Westchester Broadway Theatre
Through September 11th
I can’t even begin to fathom the energy that must have been in the room – a recording studio full of music legends whose staggeringly surreal level of ability, if harnessed like power, could have sent men to the moon a decade early. The famed “Million Dollar Quartet,” the name bestowed upon Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash in an article appearing in the Memphis Press-Scimitar, was borne out of an impromptu recording session at Memphis-based Sun Records on December 4, 1956. It was a famously unplanned afternoon rife with rock and roll, country, blues, and gospel music that would leave an indelible mark in music history and for generations to come.
What I don’t have to fathom, however, was the energy at Westchester Broadway Theatre’s production of Million Dollar Quartet because that, I had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand. It is a dynamic, non-stop, exuberant piece of musical theatre, brilliantly directed by American actor, singer, librettist, and playwright Hunter Foster. For Foster I imagine this was like coming home, since he originated the Broadway role of independent music producer Sam Phillips, Sun Records’ owner (which is far from the only major theatre credit to Foster’s name).
With book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, and original concept and direction by Mutrux, Foster both expertly and cleverly guided the four principals, Ari McKay Wilford as Presley, Sky Seals as Cash, Dominique Scott as Lewis, and John Michael Presney as Perkins, down what can sometimes be a winding path of embodying and honoring these iconic men while never looking like mere impersonators. Bringing to the boards their exceptional musical ability and captivating stage presence, Wilford, Seals, Scott, and Presney each masterfully took the reins and provided the audience with a rousing onstage jukebox filled with history and heart. Jason Louglin also was a terrific Sam Phillips who served as the endearing and loyal guide to the young, rising stars as well as the narrator to the events of the seminal day.
Through the two-hour rollicking ride, we’re given a colorful window into the past where we learn a bit about how each musician got their start with Phillips (through both dialogue and flashbacks) and some of what happened on their road to stardom, including a few of the bumps and turns along the way. One was sold (Presley), one’s about the fly the coop (Cash), one struggles to procure another hit (Perkins), and one’s eagerly hoping to make it big (Lewis). Under Phillips’ tutelage he does all he can for each of them, but there are a lot of changes taking place in the record business and in the music industry in general – and there’s only so much a little fish in a big pond can do.
Presney is a terrific Perkins – he’s brooding at times, even resentful of Elvis’ purloining of his “Blue Suede Shoes” and of Lewis’ irrepressible enthusiasm, but he’s likeable nonetheless. He plays a mean guitar and does a fab rockabilly. Seals, also a skilled guitar player, hits all the requisite and distinctive low notes of the inimitable Cash and personifies his calm and so very, very cool demeanor. Scott truly is on “Fire” as Lewis. He’s like a whirling dervish with boundless energy and blow-your-mind talent as he doesn’t just tickle the ivories, but instead epically tears them up. Wilford, in some respects may have the least enviable role – there are few if any people who are more impersonated than Elvis – but he does a fantastic job of bringing the Pelvis’ gyrating hip thrusts, classic snarl, guitar playing, and recognizable vocal inflections to life.
Loughlin is no second-fiddle to the rock icons as Phillips. He adeptly tells the story through both fourth-wall breaking narration and as the businessman that he portrays. He wows the audience taking to the mic with an excellent harmonica solo – and we were shocked to learn when mingling with the cast at the opening after-party, that he’d only picked it up weeks before, never having played a note. Bligh Voth as Presley’s arm candy and current squeeze Dyanne is a powerhouse singer and an adorable complement to the testosterone-filled stage.
Also on stage throughout the production are Sam Weber as Perkins’ brother Jay and David Sonneborn as Fluke. I had an incredible feeling of déjà vu as I watched Weber on bass – and it wasn’t until intermission when I had the chance to peruse the program when it came back to me. We’d recently seen Weber in Pump Boys and Dinettes (at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse) doing things we’d not thought possible on an instrument – and he went on to do similar musical acrobatics on into Act 2. That man can play! It’s a treat just not to be missed. Musical director Sonneborn also provided spectacular accompaniment on drums.
With incredible hits such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Down by the Riverside,” “I Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” “See You Later Alligator,” “Fever,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and countless others, be ready to chair dance to your heart’s content.
The Sun Records recording studio was impeccably crafted with incredible attention to detail – kudos to Derek McLane for set design (and additional scenic elements by Adam Koch). A big hand also to Molly Walz for wonderful costume design (with coordination by Heidi Giarlo); Andrew Gmoser for lighting; Jonathan Hatton and Mark Zuckerman for sound design; Steve Loftus for technical direction; Jennifer Cody as assistant director and for choreography; and to the rest of the crew.
Many have batted around the historical accuracy of the show’s depiction of the day’s event – the way I see it, Million Dollar Quartet is a shout-out to these icons and to what they’ve collectively done for the music and the industry. It is not touted as a documentary, but instead is a fine piece of musical theatre that uses the spontaneity of the December 4 session as a springboard, weaving in other historical elements which highlight the careers of this sublime foursome. Seeing and hearing this quintessential crooning quartet belting out some of their best-known and beloved numbers is scintillatingly gratifying. And as the master of ceremonies told us before the show began, when you think it’s over, it’s not – there’s a rocking and rolling, glittering concert at the very end that will have you wanting to jump to your feet and dance in the aisles!
I think I have something tonight that’s not quite correct for evening wear. Blue suede shoes. — Elvis Presley
I need to make a disclosure before I begin this review. I am a HUGE Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins fan – in that order. That is a two-edged sword when it comes to reviewing a show like this. On the one hand, it means I may be biased toward the show and the performers in a good way. On the other hand, I could be super critical of the show because I have more knowledge and possibly more insight into the history and the real-life personages.
I can honestly say – and this is not my personal bias speaking – the show is fabulous. I know it’s not my personal bias because I had seen the show Off-Broadway some years back and while I enjoyed it immensely, I thought the Westchester Broadway Production’s (WBT) version was better. Indeed, this show, directed by veteran actor and director, Hunter Foster, was more dynamic, more engaging and all around more relatable. Ultimately one does not have to be a fan of one of the famous characters or of country music or rock music to enjoy it – it stands on its own as an enjoyable piece of theatre. The essence of the characters really came across and that is to a large part because of Mr. Foster’s staging, blocking, and directing.
Million Dollar Quartet is not accurate as a title. In 1956, which is when the play takes place, a million dollars had the same buying power as $8,825,559.70. I researched this on the internet, so I know it must be true. So if truth be told, the play should be called Eight Million, Eight Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand, Five Hundred Fifty-Nine Dollars and Seventy Cent Quartet; however, I can see why the producers have opted to stick with the original title.
Million Dollar Quartet, the musical, was written by Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux. It’s noted that the play was inspired by the 1950s fab four consisting of Presley, Cash, Lewis, and Perkins and represents a dramatized retelling of a famous jam session when these four superstars-to-be came together almost by happenstance at Sun Record Studios in Memphis Tennessee in 1956. The people who came together that fateful night included Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, Carl Perkins and his brother, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and his then-girlfriend.
Having played Sam Phillips on Broadway, Hunter Foster obviously was intimately familiar with the intricacies of the show and his intimate knowledge served him well in his masterful direction. The cast was MasterCard priceless, talented hyphenates who could sing, act and play musical instruments. Ari McKay Wilford was flawless as Elvis – and that is huge praise coming from a big Elvis fan like myself who has seen countless Elvis impersonators over the years. He had Elvis’ mannerisms down to a “T,” and he swung his hips with just the right amount of verve especially in “Long Tall Sally” and “Hound Dog.” Sky Seals did Johnny Cash proud. His rich voice baritone voice matched the man in black in such numbers as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” John Michael Presney played the guitar like ringing a bell as Carl Perkins. His renditions of “Who Do You Love?” and “See You Later Alligator” were spot on. Last, but not least, rounding out the fab four was Dominique Scott as the young Jerry Lee Lewis. In a word, he was absolutely superb. (Okay, that was two words, but he deserves it.) He was funny, wacky, quirky and boy-oh-boy can he play those keys – even blindfolded! He had more energy and verve than ten Energizer Bunnies. All four of the main principals captured, distilled, and communicated the essences of these famous personages without making them caricatures or bad impersonations.
Kudos must go to the rest of this talented cast. Jason Loughlin was smooth as silk as Sam Phillips. It is so key for anyone playing this role that they not be overshadowed by the quartet. Mr. Loughlin proved that he could stand tall with the rest of them. And he showed he could blow a mean harp. Bligh Voth brought just the right mix of sexy vulnerability to the role of Dyanne, Elvis’ girlfriend. (Marilyn Evans accompanied Elvis in real life.) Ms. Voth, as a performer, killed “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking.” A special nod must go to the incredibly talented Sam Weber as Carl Perkins’ brother Jay, whom we loved in Paper Mill Playhouse’s Pump Boys and Dinettes. Mr. Weber proves that a bass can be played like a guitar, used as a chair, and swung around the stage like a balsa wood prop. And finally, a nod to David Sonneborn whose musical direction was not only brilliant, but he showed his formidable acting skills as Fluke, the drummer.
The unsung heroes in almost every stage production are the stage managers. Like the First and Second Ads in the film world, they can be much maligned and underrated. So here are props to Victor Lukas, Sarah Hanlon who also is the understudy for Dyanne) and Amanda M. Stuart who are respectively the Production Stage Manager, Assistant Stage Manager, and Rehearsal Stage Manager.
When the universe converges, the stars align, magic occurs as it did on that special night back in December, 1956, when four musical legends got together and had an impromptu jam session at Sun Records. WBT recreates the magic of that night with foot stompin’, hand clappin’ music and wonderful acting. The encore alone at the end of the show was worth the price of admission. WBT’s Million Dollar Quartet is an evening filled with fun and musical history. And you’ll be seeing a show that’s really worth eight-plus million!
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