It was on December 4, 1956 at Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee when an impromptu jam session was conducted with the likes of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and a fairly unknown singer and musician (at the time) Jerry Lee Lewis. Though there was a recording of the session, it’s doubtful that it was ever intended to be shared. However, a reporter from the local Memphis Press-Scimitar was called in and he dubbed the session, the Million Dollar Quartet.
Many years later, a recording of the session was found among many other recordings in storage at Sun Records. In 1981, the Million Dollar Quartet recording was released as a record in Europe in 1981. It wasn’t until 1987 that the recording was released in the United States. In 2006, the stage show of Million Dollar Quartet was presented in Village Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals. The mainstage premiere of the show was presented in 2007 followed by a Chicago debut in 2008 and Broadway in 2010. This year, the show made its way back to Village.
Based on real and imagined events that happened in that recording studio, Million Dollar Quartet is a different type of show than what you normally see at Village Theatre. Rather than a traditional musical, it’s part theatre, part live performance. The program allows the audience to become a fly on the wall and imagine the conversations to might have been exchanged between four great singers/musicians and Sam Philips, the owner of Sun Records.
The story begins with Carl Perkins (Skye Scott) coming into the studio to record his new song Matchbox with his brother Jay (Chris Jones) playing the bass. They are joined by a drummer (James Reif) and hopeful new Sun Records sensation, Jerry Lee Lewis (John Countryman) playing the piano. Throughout the night, the small group are joined by Cash (Brian Grey), Presley (Jason Kappus) and his girlfriend, Dyanne (Cayman Ilika). Though the time together is mostly cordial, conversations become heated at times and it becomes clear that the egos of musicians back then were just as fragile and testy as today’s biggest stars.
Philips (Matt Wade) is in a jovial mood hoping to get Johnny to sign on for another three years while Elvis would like nothing more than to get Philips to work with him over at RCA. Meanwhile, Perkins butts heads with newbie Lewis, whose clearly too big for his britches. Remarkably, Dyanne seems to have a soothing quality that helps keep the men in check.
Million Dollar Quartet isn’t just a good show for people who grew up in the 50s and 60s. It’s a good show period. Even if you don’t think you’re very familiar with any of these guys’ music, you’ll be surprised by how much you’ll recognize. Favorite songs (which may or may not have been played during the actual recording) include “Blue Suede Shoes,” “That’s Alright,” “I Walk the Line,” “Hound Dog” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
While the cast don’t necessarily look a lot like the characters they’re playing, they sure sound and play like them. Brian Grey, is probably the best fit all around, but all four men are equally impressive. Finding four guys who can not only sing, act and play instruments like the famous foursome was no easy task, but these guys pull it off. For that matter, Cayman Ilika (who has appeared in numerous other Village performances and just sang the national anthem at a recent Aquasox game) is a nice addition to the otherwise male-heavy performances. Her rendition of “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin” is spot on. The only real negative about the show is Lewis’ constant sexual innuendo comments and Countryman plays them out way too long.
The show also hints that this recording session was a happier time for the foursome who all wrestled with their inner demons years later. But even at this time, their lives were far from perfect. All of them had grown up in the Bible belt and struggled reconciling playing secular music instead of sacred. The music scene back then wasn’t a whole lot different back then than it is now apparently. Overall, this is an upbeat show that will get you up on your feet and clapping along enjoying every minute of it.
Finally, a word must be given to Andrea Bryn Bush’s stage design. Every detail from the ventilation system to the smudges on the studio’s door’s windows are perfect. Instead of watching a show that takes place in a room that resembles a recording studio, you are transported to a real one.
Million Dollar Quartet continues at the Everett Performing Arts Center through July 28, 2019 (but I wouldn’t be surprised if the show gets held over). The theatre is located in Everett at 2710 Wetmore Ave. 98201. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 425.257.8600.
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.