by Barbara Waldinger
Pondering why Million Dollar Quartet is so popular, Berkshire Theatre Group Director/Choreographer Greg Santos attributes its success to the “nostalgia factor”—the hit songs of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”: Elvis Presley. However, if this production consisted only of music, it would be a concert, rather than a play. Instead, writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux provide a theatrical structure that humanizes the singers, their struggles, and their songs.
The central character is Samuel Cornelius Phillips (Zach Cossman), the American record producer who founded Sun Records and Sun Studio (1950) in Memphis. Called “the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” he discovered, nurtured and developed the talent of the above performers and others, helping to launch their careers. Between Escott’s in-depth account of Sun Records: Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Mutrux’s original direction and conception, this successful production was born. Landing on Broadway in 2010, Million Dollar Quartet was nominated for Tony awards for Best Book and Best Musical, and won for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Levi Kreis as Jerry Lee Lewis). The script, inspired by an actual event, transports us “into the world of Sam Phillips’mind’s eye.” It all takes place on one day: December 4, 1956, when he invited Lewis (Billy Rude), Cash (Bill Scott Sheets), Perkins (Colin Summers, also the show’s Music Director), and Presley to an impromptu jam session at Sun Records (formerly an auto parts shop). Dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet,” and recorded by Phillips, it was the first and only time these musicians played together.
In four flashbacks, Phillips traces the auditions of each of his star performers–young, white, dirt poor singer/guitarists and one pianist (Lewis), who are hungry for a chance at fame and fortune. An advocate for racial equality, Phillips recognized the contributions of black singers whose records unfortunately didn’t sell but whose music inspired young people. He saw in Presley “a white kid who could light a fire under a song like the great Negro singers.” As depicted in the play, the December 4th session was a reunion for some and a source of dramatic conflict for others—Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, who had never met, clash from the beginning; Perkins resents Presley for appropriating the former’s hit song Blue Suede Shoes; and contract disputes abound. Battles pitch music industry giants like RCA (to whom Phillips had to sell Elvis’s contract or go bankrupt) and Columbia Records against tiny Sun Records—echoes of Rocky that never fail to arouse our sympathy for the little guy. Though Phillips has a temper he also suffers for his “boys”, wishing that they “had a little more happiness in their lives.” Cossman is masterful as both narrator and character actor, connecting with the audience and leading them on his journey.
The amazingly talented performers have all been involved in previous productions of Million Dollar Quartet, including some who were cast in this show at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre in 2017. Except for Carl Perkins’ Brother Jay (Kroy Presley) on bass and Fluke (Trey Snyder) on drums (both excellent), there is no recorded or onstage support backing the four stars: these actors play and sing the whole musical score (22 songs) and a medley of encores, whipping up the audience into a frenzy. Billy Rude’s Jerry Lee Lewis, a tall, lanky, crazy-haired guy is like a child who cannot sit or keep still. A brilliant scene stealer (in the best sense), every time our gaze is drawn to him his hands (or feet) are on the piano keys–sitting, standing, playing the piano backwards, upside down, on the top of the piano, slithering to the floor or doing a backbend, while piano notes continue to invade whatever is happening onstage. A bravura performance!
Colin Summers’ Carl Perkins is terrific on the guitar, exuding energy and ready for a fight. Perkins was trained by “an old colored man . . . to play git-tar like no one you ever heard.” Though his #1 record, Blue Suede Shoes, was the first triple-crown winner (topping the pop, blues and country charts), he hasn’t had a second hit. Feeling that Phillips is promoting the recordings of others instead of giving his new songs a chance, Perkins’ disappointment and frustration is made palpable by Summers.
Bill Scott Sheets perfectly captures the low-pitched voice of Johnny Cash, who would rather sing Gospel than Rock ‘n’ Roll but excels at both, while Alessandro Gian Viviano plays a young Presley, surprisingly low-keyed but with those swiveling hips. Presley brings along a girlfriend—Dyanne (Emma Wilcox), who turns out to be a good singer, offering among other things, a sensual, slow rendition of Fever.
The work of the design team is first rate: notice Jose Santiago’s lighting, from the colorful upstage bulbs and vertical lines, to the spots on the performers, to the illumination of the scrim and the recording room, to what the script calls “the otherworldly light of Sam’s imagination”; Scenic Designer Baron E. Pugh’s recording studio and scrim, which descends for private scenes downstage, enabling the action to take place both indoors and outdoors in the cold December weather; and Costume Designer Arthur Oliver’s authentic period costumes, including those fabulous glittering jackets at the end. Nathan Leigh’s rousing Sound Design allows us to hear every note, though sometimes the words of the speakers/singers are hard to decipher—perhaps because of their southern accents.
Director/Choreographer Santos knows how to galvanize the audience, many of whom mouth the lyrics, rock in their seats and occasionally dance in the aisles.
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET runs from June 27—July 16, 2023 at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA. Tickets: $75; Teen (12-17) $38; Premium Seats $125. For tickets contact BerkshireTheatreGroup.org or call 413-997-4444.
Berkshire Theatre Group presents MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. Director/Choreographer: Greg Santos. Cast: Zach Cossman (Sam Phillips), Kroy Presley (Brother Jay), Billy Rude (Jerry Lee Lewis), Trey Snyder (Fluke), Bill Scott Sheets (Johnny Cash), Colin Summers (Carl Perkins), Alessandro Gian Viviano (Elvis Presley), Emma Wilcox (Dyanne). Music Director: Colin Summers; Scenic Designer: Baron E. Pugh; Costume Designer: Arthur Oliver; Lighting Designer: Jose Santiago; Sound Designer: Nathan Leigh. Production Stage Manager: Sarah Kelso.
The performance runs 2 hours including intermission.