December 4, 1956. Something momentous occurred. No, it wasn’t a celebration of my 64th day on the planet.
Far away from Providence, a recording studio in Memphis hosted an impromptu jam session featuring Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. All four artists got their start at Sun Records, owned and operated by Sam Phillips.
“Million Dollar Quartet,” the opening show of Theatre by the Sea’s 89th season, captures that evening like lightning in a bottle.
Let’s set the stage. Perkins, played by Colin Summers, was the father of Rockabilly. His single, “Blue Suede Shoes,” was a huge hit. The show opens with him jamming on his electric guitar with his brother Jay (Kroy Presley) on bass and Fluke (Matt Rapiejko) as Flute.
Enter Jerry Lee Lewis (Taylor Isaac Gray), a bundle of self-confidence, bent on showing Phillips (Michael Santora) that he’s going to be Sun’s next big star. Meanwhile, Lewis needs a payday loan. “What with gas costing 25 cents a gallon and all.” That line gets a good chuckle.
Here comes Johnny Cash (Sky Seals), dressed in his traditional black garb. When Phillips asks Cash where he’s been, he says, “I’ve been everywhere, man.” Another good chuckle. Finally, Elvis Presley (Alessandro Viviano) shows up with Dyane (Emma Wilcox) on his arm.
The show’s an excuse, and a good one, to play some of the hits that helped form rock and roll. You know, the Devil’s Music. While the artists and their songs are popular with the younger crowd, not so much with parents. Especially not with Congress, busily trying to legislate against it.
No matter. Rock and roll is safe inside the Sun studio. Many of the songs are familiar, having stood the test of time. “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Hound Dog” are just part of the playlist.
We’re treated to actors who are also fantastic musicians, more than capable of playing the instruments most associated with the actual musicians. Electric guitar for Carl Perkins, acoustic guitars for Elvis and Johnny Cash, and piano for Jerry Lee Lewis.
The best part for me was that none of them were attempting to do an impersonation. Sure, they had the mannerisms and some of the same vocalizations, but you were hearing the actors’ own very impressive voices. Presley’s swiveling hips. Perkins leg kicks. Lewis’ pounding on his piano, one foot on top of it. Cash’s way of holding his guitar up so his left arm was fully extended over his head, putting the body of the guitar close to his face.
They stay true to the music. No reimagined arrangements here. After all, it’s all about the music.
There is a story driving the show, allowing the music to be highlighted. Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA the year before for $40,000. The move helped bail out Sun but earned Phillips the title King of Fools for letting such a hot commodity escape his grasp. RCA is courting Phillips to come help Presley make more hits, but his heart is really in Sun and his artists.
He plans to sign Cash to a three-year contract extension that evening. But Cash has a surprise for Phillips, as does Perkins.
And there’s tension between Perkins and Presley. Perkins was on his way to appear on the Ed Sullivan show to perform “Blue Suede Shoes” when he was in a serious accident. Presley made an appearance signing that song, and now people think it’s his song, not Perkins’.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is a fun, uplifting nostalgic trip to the birthplace of rock and roll. And it proves rock and roll is here to stay.
“Million Dollar Quartet” runs through June 18 at Theatre by the Sea in Wakefield. Call the box office at 401.782.TKTS or visit their website at www.theatrebythesea.com for tickets and information.