C’mon over baby — there’s gonna be a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on over at Town Theatre. Talented young actors will assume the personas of four of the greats of rock-and-roll royalty, as the company’s production of Million Dollar Quartet from this March returns for three encore performances this week.
Technically a jukebox musical — i.e. an excuse to perform vintage songs made famous by Sun Records artists Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis — it’s more than a rock concert, although not quite a traditional Broadway musical. Either way, the faithful recreation of rockabilly and country classics and the chance to see some favorite performers flex their musical muscles ensured a rockin’ good time for all during the production’s initial run.
The play’s premise derives from an actual jam session at Sun Records in December 1956. The production, like that once-in-a-lifetime event, lasts only around 90 minutes, playing out in real time with no intermission. The script by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux allows for brief snippets of each performer’s background, with producer Sam Phillips (Chip Collins) recounting how he discovered each one, allowing the audience to see — if only briefly — how he nurtured their talent and helped each to find his unique sound.
Twenty-four-year-old Perkins (Alex Cowsert) is there to record a new song, meaning that his regular band (Mikey Lowrey on drums, Caleb Everson on guitar, and Landon Osteen as Perkins’s brother Jay on bass) is conveniently on hand to provide backup. He’s desperate for a second hit to follow “Blue Suede Shoes,” and more than a little resentful that the 21-year-old Elvis scored a bigger hit with it after covering the song on TV. Elvis (Matthew Harter) is already a movie star, but longs for the simplicity of his days with Sun Records. Twenty-four-year-old Cash (Charlie Goodrich) wants to record more gospel music and is about to jump to another label, while the 21-year-old Lewis (Jeremy Reasoner) is still a hungry, ambitious unknown, and has been brought in to jazz up Perkins’ new single.
Collins as Phillips is the cornerstone of the story, and, at the performance I saw this spring, the actor did a capable and entertaining job with the fairly paper-thin sketch provided by the script for one of the inventors of what we think of as rock music today. The cast all play their own instruments, and each of the featured quartet brought specific skills to his portrayal. Cowsert probably looks the most like his character, and while he never reached the lower register of Perkins’ voice, he seemed the most comfortable in leading and jamming with a live band. Goodrich also resembles Cash a bit, and was the best at channeling his character’s distinctive bass/baritone voice, flat delivery and intonation, and stiff body language.
Harter recreated Elvis’ moves and voice quite accurately, and was the best at capturing his character’s star power. Unlike an actor who usually tries to align his vocals perfectly with his accompaniment, Harter dove into each number with abandon, just like a rock singer, seemingly hitting each note perhaps a half- or quarter-second before the instruments, an effective stylistic choice, and something that I’ve heard rock musicians discuss in countless documentaries.
As the original “real wild child” Lewis, Reasoner naturally gave the most flamboyant performance. He doesn’t look much like Jerry Lee, although he had the signature hair flip down pat, as well as all the familiar keyboard histrionics. Reasoner, whose soaring tenor was a highlight of last fall’s My Fair Lady, didn’t try to copy his character’s deeper voice, but he’s a better singer than Jerry Lee ever was.
An unexpected treat was Sheldon Paschal as Elvis’ semi-fictional girlfriend, who is encouraged to sing a few songs on her own, and adds harmonies to many familiar Elvis hits originally featuring backing vocals by The Jordanaires. Due to the nature of the material, director Shannon Willis Scruggs had to remain largely invisible, although credit must surely go to her for helping develop such rich characterizations by Goodrich and Reasoner.
Musical director Jeremy Hansard was probably the unsung star of the show. He took actors who know how to play instruments, and turned them into a band. Which is quite a feat. Obviously, one’s fondness for 1950s music, in particular rockabilly — with plentiful country and gospel influences — will determine how much one appreciates the production. But the cast did right by the material.
What:Million Dollar Quartet
Where:Town Theatre, 1012 Sumter St.
Price:$25 ($20 seniors 65-plus, full-time college students, active duty military; $15 youth 17 and under)
More: 803-799-2510, towntheatre.com