By Daniel Skora
Sam Philips undoubtedly had free publicity in mind when he called a reporter at the Memphis Press-Scimitar and suggested he might be interested in the impromptu jam session that was going on at his Sun Records recording studio. Four of Philips’ protégés were now holding court in a songfest of epic proportions. Carl Perkins was in the studio recording some new tracks. Jerry Lee Lewis, Sun’s newest recording artist, had been invited by Philips to add piano fill. Johnny Cash just happened to be in the neighborhood and Elvis Presley, who was fast on his way to becoming known as rock ‘n roll’s King of kings, arrived with a girlfriend.
The reporter arrived bringing with him a cameraman, and among the photos in that roll of pictures he took that day of December 4th, 1956 was what would become an iconic image of Jerry Lee, Carl, and Johnny leaning over the shoulders of Elvis, who was perched in front of the piano. The next day, the reporter’s article about that jam session that appeared in the newspaper bore the title of The Million Dollar Quartet .
“Million Dollar Quartet” became the title of the Broadway musical which not only recreated the excitement of that day but also recognized the important contributions Sun Studios and the four artists who were present made to those formative years of rock ‘n roll. The show is currently being presented by The Encore Musical Theatre in a production you won’t want to miss.
Encore’s excellent production begins with the cast. All four principals are accomplished actors and musicians: Marek Sapieyevski (Jerry Lee); Josh White (Elvis); Stephen Shore (Johnny); and Alex Canty (Carl). In addition, the cast includes Jim Walke as Sam Philips, owner and driving force for Sun Records, and Kaitlyn Weickel as Dyanne, Elvis’ girlfriend du jour.
And what glorious music the four make; they can really tear the house down. “Quartet” is not merely a greatest hits compilation. A few songs from the original jam session are included, and with Elvis, the leading force behind the original jam session, the songs were heavy on spirituals. Included in the show are “Peace in the Valley” and “Down by the Riverside” (done in a rousing a cappella version), as well as Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”. The set list also contains songs made famous by other artists: “Let’s Have a Party” by Wanda Jackson; “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford, “See You Later Alligator” by Bill Haley and the Comets, and “Memories Are Made of This” by Dean Martin. Dyanne has a couple of 50’s numbers to sing: ”Fever”, and “I Hear You Knocking”
Adding historical context is a storyline that fleshes out the careers of the four singer/musicians as they played out against Sun Studios. Elvis has recently moved on to RCA but misses the energy and spontaneity that Sun Studios gave him. Cash is about to make his own break with Sun and sign with Columbia. Perkins is having trouble finding a follow up hit record and has developed a mean streak towards Lewis because he feels his music does not need piano accompaniment. And Lewis, the cocky and flamboyant piano man whose recording of “Great Balls of Fire” will soon to hit the airways, is being touted as the latest Sam Philip’s discovery.
It’s a reasonable expectation that a show that attempts to duplicate the look and sound of well-known performers have a similarity of appearance and musical ability akin to the person they are imitating. Canty, Shore, Sapieyevski, and White all have instrumentation skills that match their character. All have a passing resemblance to their respective performers and each has played their performer in previous productions. Sapievsky is a dynamo on piano, and his renditions of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” tear up the stage.
But it’s Elvis who was the most dynamic performer of the group, and Josh White as Elvis is nothing short of spectacular. His performance packs all the raw, sensual energy of the authentic Elvis before the Colonel, RCA, and his own surrender to fame and fortune diluted his uniqueness. And he has all of Elvis’ ‘moves’: the lip curl, the swivel hips, the pelvic thrust, and the windmill, where he twirls one arm around like a propeller while the other caresses the mic. His rubber legs are always one motion ahead of his loose-fitting cream-colored trousers. If you’re an Elvis fan, White is the one to watch, his performance a studied and exceptional tribute to the artist who revolutionized popular music and in large part gave birth to the American youth movement.
Tobin Hissong has done a marvelous job directing. The show is high energy, visually appealing, and the music rocks. The set has the look and the feel of the 1950’s Sun Studio and is nicely detailed with photos, period recording equipment, and skylight windows that occasionally come into play as accompaniment to the music. Besides the guitar and piano playing of the principals, bass is added by music director R. MacKenzie Lewis/Leer Sobie and drums by Billy Harrington/Daniel MacDonald.
Casting is by Thalia V. Schramm who also did set design with Greg Brand, costumes are by Sharon Larkey Urick, and sound and lighting by Dustin Miller. Prop master is Anne Donevan. Stage manager for the production is Sera Shearer. If you’re interested in having a look at all the pictures in the roll that photographer George Pierce took that day, go to this link.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. The show runs through February 25th. Tickets are available by calling 1.734.268.6200 or going online at www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets. Encore Musical Theatre is located at 3126 Broad Street in the historic village of Dexter. If you’re coming west on I-96, exit at Baker Street.