On Dec. 4, 1956, four men turned up at Sun Studios in Memphis to jam. Three of them were stars, the other a newcomer whose career was about to ignite.
“Million Dollar Quartet,” now playing at Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre, is a jukebox musical that tells a story of that time when Carl Perkins was recording, backed by a young session musician named Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley happened to stop by.
Cash, Presley, Perkins and Lewis all got their start at Sun Studios, the iconic recording studio and record label built from scratch by Sam Phillips that helped launch rock ’n’ roll.
As much as the story of “Million Dollar Quartet” is about the four stars, it’s also about the man who brought them together – Phillips. He has a great ear, is driven and is fiercely loyal to his “boys” – even though he famously sold Presley’s contract to RCA in a bid to save his business. For CST, Casey Raiha is a compelling Sam Phillips. As the one who doesn’t sing, he makes the most of every moment on stage. When the musicians area playing, he can be seen in the control booth, turning nobs, adjusting volume and bobbing his head to the music. He’s never at rest.
Casting is key in a show that has a tissue-paper plot only strong enough to hang a bunch of hit songs on. Not only do you have to find actors who can capture the essence of these famous personalities, they have to be able to to sing and play the instruments. Johnny Cash has to be one of the hardest to cast, because no one looks like Johnny Cash. Luckily, Michael Feldman sounds like Johnny Cash, and turns in nice performances of “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and “Sixteen Tons.”
Carl Perkins is an easier nut to crack, if only because his look is not as instantly recognizable as, say, Elvis Presley’s. That said, Matt McClure is well cast as the king of rockabilly. He shows Perkins’ frustrations and ambitions, sings quite well, and plays a mean guitar.
Jerry Lee Lewis is an outsized personality. Having watched Henry McNulty on area stages for years, I admit to thinking him an odd choice to play Lewis. His fine baritone has been such a memorable part of “Peter and the Starcatcher” at CST and “All is Calm” for the Modern Theater, for instance, I wondered if he could shake, rattle and roll like the Killer himself.
He can. And play boogie-woogie piano. It was fun to watch McNulty let loose.
Then there’s Elvis. So iconic. The national touring production of the show that came through Spokane in 2013 featured a professional Elvis impersonator in the role. CST turned to Jeffrey Rowden, a graduate student at Central Washington University. He has the look, the chin, the voice. It’s a fun performance to watch.
Oh, there’s a girl, too – Presley’s girlfriend. In life, Marilyn was a dancer. Reinvented for the show, she’s Dyanne, a Hollywood club singer played by Quinn Vaira. Vaira gives her all to an underwritten part, and is a blast to watch in Dyanne’s two solo numbers, a sexy “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.”
The show is filled will great little touches. When Phillips asks Cash where he’s been lately, he replies, “I’ve been everywhere, man.” The audience Thursday got the joke. Feldman holds his guitar chest high, as Cash was apt to do. McNulty has mastered Lewis’ split-leg stance at the piano, and Rowden can swivel his hips like the king of rock himself.
Essentially, jukebox musicals are an excuse to watch talented performers play songs we love. The best of the genre, like “Jersey Boys,” give us a compelling look at the lives of the artists behind the songs. With four artists at its center, “Million Dollar Quartet” struggles in this department, as there isn’t time to delve deeply into any of these fascinating men.
We get a hint of Lewis’ inner conflict as he reconciles his fire-and-brimstone upbringing with his talent for “the devil’s music.” Presley, we see, is already feeling pulled in too many directions. Cash feels stretched, too, by his faith, his family commitments and his artistic ambitions. And Perkins is desperate for another hit, and peeved Presley took his song, “Blue Suede Shoes,” into the stratosphere.
What the book lacks in depth, CST’s “Million Dollar Quartet” more than makes up for with great performances of classic tunes. Thursday, the show ended with “Elvis has left the building” – naturally. But he hadn’t. He was in the lobby, greeting audience members. When a group of women let loose with school-girl screams, those around them cracked up. It was a fun coda to an enjoyable evening.