Review: Million Dollar Quartet no mere hit parade

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WESTON — On Dec. 4, 1956, a 24-year-old Carl Perkins was recording at Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn. A few years before, the virtuoso guitarist had burst on to the national music scene with his original song "Blue Suede Shoes." He was accompanied by his brother Jay on acoustic bass and friend Fluke Holland on the drum set. The producer and owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, had brought in 20-year-old future star Jerry Lee Lewis to play piano at the session.

In walked fellow Sun Records artist Johnny Cash, who, at 24, had already tasted success with his recording of "Folsom Prison Blues." Still later that day, Elvis Presley arrived with his girlfriend in tow. Only 21, Elvis, whose contract with Sun Records had been sold in 1955 by Sam Phillips to RCA, had just returned from filming his first Hollywood movie, "Love Me Tender."

What began as a recording session became an impromptu jam session in the studio where each found their start in the music business. The four sang rockabilly, country, rock and roll, and gospel. It was the one and only time that the so-called "Million Dollar Quartet" would play together. Phillips had the good sense to turn the recording tape on and to leave it on.

With some minor dramatic license, the jukebox musical "Million Dollar Quartet" recreates that magical afternoon, before careers would rise and fall. All of the songs on stage were sung by a talented cast who played their own instruments.

This, however, was no tribute band concert. Last Friday, Weston's exhilarating production of "Million Dollar Quartet" captured musical lightning in a bottle.

Prior to the show, director Michael Beresse explained that while he discouraged cast members from simply impersonating their real life characters, he did ask them to incorporate elements that made each performer unique. In other words, there would be no problem discerning who was who on the Weston stage.

As Perkins, perhaps the most technically proficient of the lot, Tommy Crawford allowed the audience to see the resentment the taciturn performer harbored toward the more famous Elvis, while enjoying some pretty hot licks on electric guitar.

As Cash, James Penca offered a grounded interpretation that hinted at the substance abuse that would later take hold. The signature way that Cash held his guitar neck skyward came naturally. Crawford's deep bass voice suited the Cash repertoire perfectly.

These days, Elvis impersonators abound. As the very young Elvis, Joe Boover adroitly signaled how the machinations of early success had left his character unmoored. In many ways, Elvis' visit to the Sun Records studio was an attempt to save his musical soul.

Playwrights Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux make Jerry Lee Lewis the foil of the other's jokes and illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the mercurial performer from Faraday, Louisiana. Jefferson MacDonald's performance was bursting with the ambitious star's ridiculous enthusiasm for life and energy at the piano, which he played with his fingers, feet and backside. In sum, he shook, rattled and rolled.

In 1956, Elvis's girlfriend was a dancer. The playwrights elected to transform her into a singer to give the evening some female musical flavor. As Dyanne, Caitlyn Doak offered a sensuous take on the Peggy Lee hit: "Fever." Kroy Presley (presumably no relation to the King) and musical director Jonathan Brown provided a steady rhythm section as bassist Jay Perkins and drummer Fluke Holland.

The jam session was bittersweet for Phillips, who cultivated each artist's talents on a shoestring budget only to see them seek greener pastures. Karack Brown's portrayal conveyed the dynamic producer's passion for musical authenticity and desperation to stay financially afloat. As the news that both Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins would be leaving Sun Records sank in, Phillips wistfully noted that he had just signed a new singer from Texas: Roy Orbison.

Performances of "Million Dollar Quartet" continue at the Weston Playhouse through September 2. For ticket information, call the WPTC box office at (802) 824-5288 or visit its website at www.westonplayhouse.org.

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