There’s not much of a plot to Million Dollar Quartet, now at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. That’s about the worst thing anyone could accuse the show of. Having gotten that out of the way, let us just say straightaway, this is the feel-good show of the year so far. It’s about the music that came out of Sun Records in Memphis and the memorable night in December 1956 when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and a very new Jerry Lee Lewis ended up together jamming for a while.
Elvis, who Sun owner and rock n’ roll pioneer Sam Phillips had to “sell” to RCA Victor for the money to keep Sun afloat, is back in town for a visit and to take his girlfriend to meet his mother. Johnny Cash, near the end of his Sun contract, has returned from a road trip but hasn’t dropped by in quite a while. Carl Perkins, looking for another hit after “Blue Suede Shoes” (which he wrote as well as put on the charts) and deeply resentful that Elvis covered the song in his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, is working in the studio with his brother, who’s his upright bass player, and a drummer. Phillips has decided the sound, the original rockabilly, needs a little something more, so he’s brought in a piano player, a young guy named Jerry Lee Lewis, who is, hard as it is to imagine, quite full of himself.
The four actors who play the quartet have worked this show before, and it shows. John Michael Presney is the wonderfully irritable Perkins, on edge trying to go for his second big hit. Johnny Cash, via actor Sky Seals, has got the right pipes and the right gravitas for even a young Cash. The floppy-haired madman Lewis, to whom Elton John surely owes a great deal, when played by Dominique Scott does a certain amount of flouncing, but over-the-top dramatics are certainly not out of keeping with Lewis’ history. To watch them treat Elvis with a combination of deference – his first movie has just come out – and camaraderie is interesting to watch. Ari McKay Wilford’s Presley is more of a cipher than one might expect, although the trademark lip curl pops up at the oddest spots, like mid-song. (They must have had a difficult time finding a sufficiently Presleyan wig; prepare yourself.) They sound absolutely great together, and they’re all actually playing their instruments, not having sound fed in.
Dyanne, Elvis’ girlfriend, from Ryah Nixon, holds her own with this group. The body language, and her dress, is very 1950’s-girlfriend, but her singing is as forthright as anyone could ask for. When she’s on, she owns it. James Ludwig plays Sam Phillips, the man who is Sun Records, for better or worse. He loves this stuff so much we occasionally see him dancing in the control room,. Whether by nature or by intent, he’s a charmer, and he plays a fine harmonica on a few songs.
There is, certainly, a great deal of music, but that’s the point of it all. It’s the first time I ever heard an opening-night audience at the Rep cheer after the very first number, so great is the exhilaration of the score. It’s the soundtrack to many of our lives. “It’s the soundtrack to America,” murmured one seat-neighbor when I mentioned that, and he’s right. And speaking of soundtrack, they have the volume right. You won’t have to wear earplugs to this, and a big tip of the hat to Bart Fasbender, the sound designer, for his good work.
Other plaudits can be distributed to director Hunter Foster, who, by the by, played Sam Phillips when the show opened on Broadway in 2010, and who doesn’t let the energy stop, and a further acknowledgment to Presney, who’s also the show’s music director, and scenic designer Adam Koch.
This could well serve as an intergenerational show, letting the next generation or two see what we rocked out to. I still recall my son’s gape-jawed expression when I took him to his first Chuck Berry concert and he saw my behavior. And speaking of the great one we lost this weekend, there is an acknowledgment in the show of just how important his work was, even by then. I look forward to early rock and roll being the next nostalgia wave, and I look forward to more people enjoying what’s on stage here.
Million Dollar Quartet
through April 9
Repertory Theatre St. Louis
Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts
130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves