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LIGHTNING REVIEW: 'Million Dollar Quartet' plays the hits and the drama

'Million Dollar Quartet' opens Thursday at the Flat Rock Playhouse [PHOTO BY SCOTT TREADWAY/Treadshots] 'Million Dollar Quartet' opens Thursday at the Flat Rock Playhouse [PHOTO BY SCOTT TREADWAY/Treadshots]

Million Dollar Quartet details the chance meeting of four young stars at Sun Recording Studios in Memphis in 1956 – and more than just great songs, it touches on themes of jealousy, loyalty and greed.

The show delivers excellent performances of some of rock’n’roll’s iconic hits and also fairly accurately represents the music business as it was 60 years ago and in many respects remains today.
With all their fuss about contracts, record deals, Top 40 charts and looking better than the next guy, it seems clear that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins might never have gotten together but by accident. Perkins is late for his own recording session, where hit-hungry studio owner Sam Phillips is frantically searching for the next “big thing.” In struts an out-of-control but very talented young Jerry Lee Lewis and it only takes one flashy triplet flourish from the pianist for Phillips to take note and the frustrated Perkins to blow up.
The Flat Rock Playhouse main stage is transformed into the Sun studio — acoustic tile on the walls, reel-to-reel tape recorders in the control room, gold records and glossy photos on the walls. Much of the narration is done by Phillips (Willie Repoley), who in one scene wistfully describes the feeling of listening to playbacks alone in the studio, soaking in the magic. “This is where the soul of a man never dies,” he says.
Phillips is a hands-on producer, coaxing Elvis to pattern his vocal less like Dean Martin and more like the Negro spirituals, making suggestions about Perkins’ guitar lines, encouraging the mixing of country music with R&B and helping to create rock’n’roll.
Philips recalls all the music peddling he used to do, admitting he paid DJs to play his stuff. He recalls churches trying to shut the music down. When Phillips busts out the liquor to celebrate a contract extension that Johnny Cash (Johnny Kinnaird) has no intention of signing, he looks like he suspected it all along. Cash tears the contract up, claiming that Sun Records wouldn’t let him do a gospel album and Columbia Records would. Kinnaird plays the troubled singer very well, using subtle facial mannerisms, signature stage moves, and a believable low rasp.
Carl Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz) thinks he’s finally found a successful follow up to “Blue Suede Shoes,” and is working on “Matchbox” with bassist Brother Jay (Eric Scott Anthony) and drummer Fluke (Paul Babelay). It turns out that the guitarist, a huge and underrated influence on George Harrison and so many others, is still steamed because Phillips hired Presley to sing his song on the Perry Como Show after Perkins had been involved in a serious auto accident.
To Jerry Lee Lewis, rock’n’roll means three things – “temptation, fornication and incarceration.” Nat Zegree puts amazing energy into his performance as Lewis, and does all the musical tricks — windmilling into chords, playing upside down, backwards, high kicking, playing with both feet on the piano, and on the finale donning a blindfold…although his performance is so over the top and played for laughs it sometimes seems like he’s off the set of “Saved By The Bell.”
Still only 21, Elvis Presley (Christopher Fordinal) had been sold to RCA by Sun Records, the proceeds from which Phillips invested in a new hotel chain called Holiday Inn. The Sun gang makes fun of Presley’s budding movie career before he arrives with his girlfriend “Dyanne” (Ryah Nixon playing the part of Marilyn Evans). Presley gets emotional when talking about his stillborn twin brother, and when singing “Peace In The Valley.” He tries to lure Philips to work with him at RCA, promising to “never play Las Vegas again.”
It was a different, perhaps less enlightened day — folks didn’t worry about where they lit up a cigarette and joked about things like payola and marrying a 13-year-old. But this once-in-a-lifetime meeting also reflects (and Phillips’ recordings from that day verify), that some things never change. When able to put their cares aside and just relax and play, The Million Dollar Quartet showed it really is still all about the music.

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Million Dollar Quartet, written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, and directed by James Moye, plays on the Flat Rock Playhouse mainstage through May 21.