On Dec. 4, 1956, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley held a once-in-a-lifetime jam session at rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Records studio. They were labeled the “Million Dollar Quartet” by a local journalist, and that moniker was affixed to the recordings of the session released decades later.
In 2006, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux unleashed a highly fictionalized and time-compressed theatrical version of the event, also titled Million Dollar Quartet. Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse gives the North Bay a chance to check out the popular jukebox musical with a production running now through March 24.
Jukebox musicals usually comprise a couple dozen well-known songs connected by expository material, and Million Dollar Quartet is no different. Sam Phillips (Benjamin Stowe) narrates the tale of the event, filling in the backstory and presenting the dramatic conflict around which the music swirls—will Johnny Cash sign a contract extension or fly the coop?
At a recording session for Carl Perkins (Jake Turner) with Jerry Lee Lewis (Nick Kenrick, also music director) on piano, who should happen to drop by but Elvis Presley (Daniel Durston) and his girlfriend (Samantha Arden) and Johnny Cash (Steve Lasiter)! In no time, there’ll be a whole lotta shakin goin’ on, as we’re treated to “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “That’s All Right,” “Great Balls of Fire” and 20 other classics.
Director Michael Ray Wisely—who has played Phillips and directed this piece before—had the benefit of 6th Street expending significant coin on this production, beginning with an impressive set (Conor Woods adapted Kelly James Tighe’s original scenic design) and imported talent. It’s not an easy show to cast, as each performer must be a “triple threat”: actor, singer and musician.
Kenrick reprises his Theatre Bay Area Award-winning performance as Jerry Lee Lewis and steals the show with his kinetic piano playing and entertaining characterization. Local performer Turner manages to hold his own as Carl Perkins, and Durston and Lasiter do fine in capturing the essence of their characters while avoiding simple caricatures. They receive good musical support by locals Nick Ambrosino on drums and bassist Shovanny Delgado Carillo.
Ignore the shaky musical history and often pedestrian exposition, and you’ll find yourself enjoying a well-performed staged concert of some of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest hits.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★½