Through May 28|
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET MusicalFare Theatre/Daemen College
By Augustine Warner
It’s one of the most ridiculed credits in entertainment: Based on real events.
What’s different about “Million Dollar Quartet” is that it’s based on a recording tape of the real events, December 4, 1956 in the Sun Records studio in Memphis.
One of the ironies is the show is hearing Chuck Berry music, at a time when there was a very sharp distinction between Black music and White music.
If you wonder what that means, just get hold of Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog” and Big Mama Thornton’s version.
In this wonderful MusicalFare production set in Sam Phillips’ (Jeffrey Coyle) recording studio, the crowd assembles, Presley (Steve Copps), Carl Perkins (Brandon Barry), Johnny Cash (Andrew J. Reimers) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Joseph Donohue III), Presley girlfriend Dyanne (Arianne Davidow) and musicians Brian McMahon and Dave Siegfried.
They sing and they talk and they tell stories and they look at what they are doing in a world in which rock and roll isn’t supposed to hang around and become the dominant music, at least until the rise of hip hop.
They mix the hits of old and the new stuff, Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” all beautifully performed.
The production is filled with little touches on a wonderful set from Chris Schenk, Cash and Presley still using acoustic guitars, Perkins using a then-new electric guitar and the bass coming from one of those old-fashioned stand-up basses.
Even Lewis is still using a piano, a real piano, not a keyboard.
Little record companies like Sun are losing out to the giants like RCA and Columbia, with Presley sold to RCA to keep Sun going and Cash leaving for Columbia for promises on what he can record and Perkins looking for a new hit, also at Columbia.
But, on this day, in this pre-Christmas Eisenhower year, they get a chance to gather in the studio and play and that’s the strength of this show and some strong direction from Randall Kramer.
Rock is what you get when you mix an array of country, gospel, hillbilly and that little touch of Black music mixed by people like Cash or Presley and on the other side, Chuck Berry into American music.
The music in this show reflects that time of change, Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Memories are made of This,” “Down by the Riverside” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
A long time ago, I got drunk with Ray Charles while doing an interview after a show.
Knowing what I know now about those times and the music, I wish that’s what I had asked him about rather than the usual music and concerts on the road.
By themselves, away from the stage (the fiction of the show) they play what they want to play, including Dyanne’s steamy “Fever.”
The four musician-characters are really good, especially Donohue’s crazed Lewis.
Best in show here is a tie between the crazed Donohue and Coyle’s Phillips, two men desperate to succeed.
Phillips is dead but Jerry Lee is still out there, preaching that devil music.
Lewis apparently liked the character of himself because on opening night on Broadway, he came out and played a couple of numbers.
These were country boys with tales of being poor out in the country of the rural South and why their quick success was great, except when it wasn’t.
Presley was learning he did better with Phillips and his tiny piece of the music business than in Hollywood which never learned how to use him for more than a movie front man.
That premise is that they get to be themselves, this one last time and they are and just enjoy the show, it’s worth it.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is a great show: Based on, with the backing tape to show it’s real.
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