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Theater review: 'Million Dollar Quartet'

“Million Dollar Quartet” rocks the house at Florida Studio Theatre.

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Rock is part of the landscape now. A Muzak arrangement of “Smells like Teen Spirit” plays on the elevator. The Mount Rushmore faces of ancient rockers smile from women’s magazines. Your son politely informs you that The Clash is in the “Dad Rock” category. What a drag it is getting old, eh? But rock was young once.

“Million Dollar Quartet” looks back at rock’s infancy. And rocks the cradle of that all-American art form at Florida Studio Theatre.

Time: 1956. Place: 706 Union Ave., Memphis, Tenn., Sun Records Studios, that is. Said studio was the brainchild of musician, entrepreneur, record executive, DJ and music producer Sam Phillips. Add father of rock ’n’ roll to his list of accomplishments. Phillips had launched the careers of most of the top rockers in the mid-1950s. And on Dec. 4, 1956, he gathered four of the biggest names for the mother of all recording sessions: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. (A.k.a. the “Million Dollar Quartet.”) Good times. But Phillips had an ulterior motive …

All that really happened, and Phillips’ tape was actually rolling. (The whole session is up on YouTube, audio only.) But “Million Dollar Quartet” takes that as a mere starting point and doesn’t stick too close to the actual facts. (Like the well-known facts that musicians in recording studios generally face the producer behind the window, don’t dance around for an audience, and generally don’t have an audience to begin with.) But nobody will confuse Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s Tony Award-winning musical with a documentary. It’s pretty much a rock concert in musical-theater clothing.

Fifties rock fans note: They don’t skimp on fan service. Hopping hits include “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog” and “Who Do You Love?” — with a few gospel songs and hillbilly tunes thrown in for good measure. Along with Elvis’ misguided early cover of a Dean Martin ballad.

There’s a whole lot of great musicianship going on. Ben Williams lays down blistering guitar licks as Carl Perkins. Channeling Jerry Lee Lewis, the nimble-fingered Brandyn Day climbs over and under the upright piano, plays backwards and upside-down, and plays pretty damn good in any direction he’s facing. Joe Boover (Elvis Presley) and Joe Casey (Johnny Cash) are both excellent singers, and get close to the vocal character of the originals. Boover, Day, and Williams also copy Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins’ signature moves; Casey copies Johnny Cash’s signature not-moves. The imitations are close enough to work, but not so close to be cheesy.

And, along with their singing, playing and fine motor skills, these guys (and one gal) can also act. You instantly grasp who their characters are: Day’s bratty, show-offy and ultimately insecure Jerry Lee Lewis; Williams’ R&B guitar-god Perkins, seething that he’s not the flavor of the month, shriveling in Elvis’ thermonuclear heat; Casey’s Johnny Cash, measuring covenants with God and record sales; Boover’s Elvis, so damn ingratiating and polite, despite his ridiculous success. Michelle Pruiett is also a ball of fire as Dyanne, Elvis’ mystery girlfriend. She occasionally adds her strong voice.

This ad hoc band gets into some healthy and unhealthy competition, but have a good time most of the time. Every now and then, the lights go black. Perkins talks to the audience directly and says where the boys will go and where they’ve been. Joe Ditmyer delivers a moving characterization as the maverick, take-no-crap father of rock ’n’ roll.

Director Jason Cannon does a fine job of making this precisely engineered entertainment experience resemble a spontaneous get-together. Music director, Darren Server and lighting designer Michael Jarett really know what they’re doing, too. Jeff Dean’s set and Linda Patterson’s costumes are believable and cool. Drummer Kroy Presley and bass player Hunter Brown fill out the smoking hot band. Together, all these talented individuals bust a gut telling the story behind the music. Yes, they do.

Truth is, you could strip away every scrap of character and backstory and just play songs. FST could stage a 1950s tribute band, period. The audience would go home happy. Still, there’s an actual story in there. Which means a conflict.

Sam Phillips is the story’s hero. His antagonists are money and time.

Philips had the vision to see that White kids would buy Black music if other White kids played it. (The musical doesn’t sugarcoat this fact.) Phillips was right. Elvis proved it.

Yes, Philips launched the careers of Elvis, Cash, and Perkins. But big labels like Columbia and RCA bought them out as soon as they smelled money. Philips could see the writing on the record sleeve. He was tired of being a stepping stone for big shots. This jam session was his last-gasp attempt to turn things around.

According to the musical, Philips planned to use the feel-good get-together as an opportunity to renew Johnny Cash’s contract for another three years. But Cash had already signed with Columbia. Bitter about a career-slump, Carl Perkins had also signed with RCA. And he was taking his bass-playing brother with him. Hyperactive Jerry Lee Lewis was still itching to sign with Sun Studios. Somewhere offstage, Roy Orbison was, too. Silver lining, right? Maybe.

But this day would never come again.

Dec. 4, 1956 was a one-time thing. Elvis, Lewis, Cash and Perkins would go their separate ways. Phillips’ musical family was splitting up. Phillips knew it. As he informs the audience in his final heart-to-heart chat.

But he also shares good news.

Phillips would do all right in the years to come. The members of the Million Dollar Quartet would enjoy stellar careers. Cash would make a lot of cash and so would the rest.

Philips just wishes their lives had been a little happier.

OK, boo-hoo. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. This dark story stays in the background; the heart-pumping ’50s rock is in the bright lights. FST knows they’ve got a hit on their hands. It’s impossible not to have fun.

Enjoy the music.

Don’t think too hard about the story behind it.


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