By Karen Isaacs
Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins are rocking the stage at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, June 25 in the musical Million Dollar Quartet.
It is about the night (Dec. 4, 1956) when these four legends had a jam session at Sun Records in Memphis. Sun’s owner Sam Phillips had discovered each of these.
When word leaked out about the session, a local newsman said the quartet could sell a million dollars’ worth of records; hence Million Dollar Quartet.
The show is more jam session of the hits of these four than a really fully developed musical. The plot is pretty basic. Phillips had sold Elvis’ contract to RCA Victor records in order to keep his studio going; Carl Perkins hasn’t had a hit in a year, Johnny Cash’s contract is up for renewal and Jerry Lee Lewis is the brash new kid on the block. Plus Phillips is being courted by RCA to close the studio, move to NYC and work with Elvis.
Tension also exist among the four. After all, Perkins had to cancel a TV appearance due to illness; just weeks later Elvis performed “Blue Suede Shoes” – which was Perkins’ hit – on The Ed Sullivan Show.” Perkins also feels he has been provided less attention and marketing support than the others. The three more established performers all chafe at Lewis’ brashness. Presley has already made the jump to a major record label while Cash is about to go with Columbia Records.
Just to give the show a little more pizzazz, Elvis has brought his current girlfriend, Dyanne to the session.
The show lives and dies on the quality of the performers and here Ivoryton Playhouse and executive director Jacqui Hubbard have hit the jackpot. All six of the major performers are experienced and the four “legends” have all played their roles before.
Each has a resemblance to the singer they play both physically and vocally but these are not “impersonators.” They use the resemblance to suggest the performer; each succeeds well though some better than others.
The standouts in this cast are Luke Darnell as Carl Perkins and Joe Callahan as Jerry Lee Lewis. Each seemed to capture the essence of the character better and to sound more like the original. Callahan has the showiest role; Jerry Lee Lewis was brash, over-the-top and a superb showman on the piano. Callahan captures all of that from his brashness to his body language when Phillips reins him in.
Perkins is perhaps the toughest role since he seem quieter and more controlled. But when Darnell picks up the guitar (all these performers are terrific musicians), it is a wonder. Plus he manages to create a fully developed character; we see and sense his frustrations and envy at the success of the others and his struggles.
Jeremy Sevelovitz creates the vocal sound of Johnny Cash and the imposing presence of the performer. Sevelovitz, a graduate of the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, could give us a more nuanced performance; we don’t really get below the surface of the character.
John Rochette has to overcome several hurdles in playing Elvis. First of these is our familiarity with not only Elvis himself but with all the Elvis impersonators out there. Rochette isn’t doing an impersonation but a suggestion of the performer; he succeeds, yet the charisma of the performer is diminished.
Presley’s girl friend, Dyanne is Emily Mattheson who has a fine voice. The role is definitely secondary and seems to be there primarily to allow for exposition. But, she certainly scores with her two songs, “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.”
As Sam Phillips, Ben Hope creates an understanding of the man and sympathy for his plight. Like a minor league team, he must constantly find new talent and build them into stars, then lose them to the “major leagues.”
But this show is all about the music. Here director and choreographer Sherry Lutken has done a fine job. The pace is brisk but not hurried and the musical numbers are terrific.
You’ll hear many of the great songs of these four from “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Memories Are Made of This,” “Sixteen Tons,” “My Babe” right on to “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog” and more. Folks were literally dancing in the aisle.
Act One ends with the five doing a moving “Walk That Lonesome Valley”/”I Shall Not Be Moved.”
The show ends with each doing a solo; while the music is great it seems as though it is extraneous. The plot has been wrapped up, they have left the studio but each comes back for a solo.
Martin Scott Marchitto has created an effective set of the Sun Studios (which was a converted garage).
Million Dollar Quartet is a show that every fan of rock ‘n roll, rockabilly and pop music will love. It is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., through Sunday June 25. For tickets call 860-767-7318 orIvoryton Playhouse.