Centre Stage has a Million Dollar hit in its midst with the foot-stomping “Million Dollar Quartet” as four legends are brought to life by an affable array of first-rate musicians who excel at showmanship and panache.
BY SANDY STAGGS
On one frigid Southern afternoon in Memphis on December 4, 1956, the stars aligned briefly for a chance meeting of four rock pioneers: the King of rock and roll Elvis Presley, the Man in Black Johnny Cash, the King of Rockabilly Carl Perkins and the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis.
The recordings from this historic impromptu jam session at the Sun Record Studios was not released in the U.S. until 1990, but is now immortalized in “Million Dollar Quartet,” the sensational musical revue currently blowing up the sound system at Centre Stage.
This stage musical Million Dollar Quartet, written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, is a fictionalized dramatization of that recording session. As jukebox musicals go, their 2010 Tony-nominated book is plot-lite, but pompadours above the peculiar – albeit entertaining – Cash show “Ring of Fire.”
And the directing mother-daughter team of Glenda and Paige ManWaring has summoned an accomplished ensemble of musicians to fill these iconic shoes.
Narrated by Sun Records founder and Svengali Sam Phillips (portrayed by Andy Lehman, who is a singer/songwriter but does not perform here), “Million Dollar Quartet” offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of this celebrated meeting as each member contemplates his future and career trajectory.
At this recording session, Perkins (Johnny Culwell on electric guitar) is trying to re-capture the chart success of his only number one single “Blue Suede Shoes,” and Phillips has brought in his newest ingénue for some boogie piano riffs, the 21-year-old wild man from Ferriday, Louisiana, Lewis (played by Greenville pastor Matt Rexford).
After Elvis (TJ Jones), whose Sun Records contract was recently sold to RCA Victor, turns up unexpectedly with a beautiful gal on his arm (Lindsay Polowczuk), Cash (Joshua Jones) joins the soiree, and Phillips offers the Man in Black a three-year extension with Sun records, though we discover later he has already signed with Columbia.
The acting was a bit stiff at times on opening night probably because most cast members are musicians first. But this show is all about the music and nearly each of the 24 songs (plus another dozen instrumentals underscoring the dialogue) is a crowd-pleaser as this quartet jams on one high-fidelity hit after another from the era.
A humble TJ Jones is a dreamy facsimile of the King and captures his hip swagger perfectly in tunes like “That’s Alright (Mama)” and “Hound Dog.” And he gets a resounding laugh from the crowd when he declares he will never work in Vegas again.
Joshua Jones is emphatically the genuine Johnny Cash cover man in stature and vocally in exceptional renditions of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.”
Culwell, most recently harmonizing as a clean-cut teenager in another 1950s musical “Forever Plaid” with the Mill Town Players, has the most difficult role to embody. Perkins is the lesser-known quantity to contemporary audiences, and the only member not eulogized in a biography film. But he makes this part his own, and always with a measured bitterness as his character gripes about Elvis usurping his song on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and bickers with the hillbilly Lewis and his Liberace antics.
And as Lewis, the only remaining surviving member (YES, he is still alive!), Rexford, who also music directs, is goodness, gracious on fire! Great Balls of Fire! With his floppy curly hair and high-octane, impish antics on the piano, he handily steals the show several times belting classics like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” while playing with his hands and feet. At one point, I thought I saw smoke coming from those ivories.
And, of course, these four Southern Baptist boys ain’t going to let the audience get away without some gospel fare including a harmony-laden “Peace in the Valley.” In addition, the entire company gets down-right silly with Paige ManWaring’s jaw-snapping choreography in the novelty song “See You Later Alligator.”
Even Ms. Polowczuk, longtime actor with South Carolina Children’s Theatre and FIRE Theatre Company, as Dyanne (based on real-life date Marilyn Evans) gets to sing lead in the studio with exquisite renderings of pop standards like “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking,” as well as providing back-up vocals, in her Centre Stage debut.
And rounding out the studio cast is Jordan Hanner playing ‘slap’ style upright bass as Perkins’ brother Jay, and frequent theatre drummer Kip Brock on drums as Fluke.
The creative team on this production includes Will Luther as scenic designer, Victor DeLeon as hair/makeup designer, Chris Rose as costume designer, Jessica Eckenrod as props designer, Javy Pagan as set dresser, Laura Wolfe as lighting designer, J Baldwin as stage manager, Taylor Whitmire on light board and Matt Polowczuk as sound engineer.
“Million Dollar Quartet” continues Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through August 19 at Centre Stage, 501 River Street in Greenville. Call (864) 233-6733 or visit http://www.centrestage.org/.