Sierra Repertory Theatre’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet,” now playing at the Fallon House Theater in Columbia, creates music magic with a group of sublimely talented singers and musicians. Making his SRT directing debut is Michael Ray Wisely, an accomplished director with more than 25 years experience. He has gathered an amazing cast of performers who sing superbly and masterfully play their own instruments live on stage.
Written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, this Tony Award-winning musical centers on an informal jam session at Sam Phillips’ famed Sun Recording Studios, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins gathered one evening in December 1956. Recordings exist for this session, but not much is known about what they discussed that evening in Memphis. So, the writers have woven backstories into the dialogue as the future legends deliberate about lucrative contracts and career choices, and Cash and Presley try to reconcile their decisions to leave Phillips, the man who made them famous.
Carl Perkins, one of the early architects of rock ’n’ roll arrives at the studio with his brother, Jay, and drummer, Fluke, to record some material. A largely unknown Jerry Lee Lewis is there to provide piano accompaniment. By chance, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and a girlfriend drop by, and musical history is made. To start, the quartet breaks into a rousing rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes,” which was written by Perkins but would later become one of Presley’s signature tunes.
Sean Riley, an accomplished guitar player, confidently plays the enthusiastic Perkins. Chris McGraw gives a winning performance as his brother Jay, who plays upright bass. Together, the brothers provide flashes of humor as they tease one another and engage in a bit of sibling rivalry. Chris Cerreto, who has won awards for his musical compositions, is marvelous as the drummer, Fluke.
The brooding young Johnny Cash is vividly played by Stephen Hardy, a solo musician. This is his seventh production of this play, which has obviously allowed him to perfect his role.
Joe Boover, an actor, singer and songwriter plays the young Elvis Presley, who by then had already signed with RCA. Boover is reprising this role for the sixth time, and is confident and comfortable in his performance.
Hannah Zilber skillfully plays Dyanne, whose character is based on a girlfriend of Elvis, who was actually at the jam session. Zilber is captivating and charismatic in her role and performs several solos, including a steamy rendition of “Fever,” which rivals Peggy Lee’s version.
In a strong and engaging performance, Jeff Jeffers plays Sam Phillips, the influential and supportive producer who wanted the best for his clients. Although Phillips was an entrepreneur who chose to retain control of his enterprise, eventually his small studio could neither contain nor adequately promote his artists into the realm of superstardom they were to achieve.
The showiest role in the production belongs to Benjamin Van Diepen as Jerry Lee Lewis, and he plays it with relish. A multi-talented musician, Van Diepen plays the piano magnificently and astutely captures the impetuous and irrepressible nature of Lewis. On numerous occasions, he interrupts the proceedings with hilarious observations as Phillips tries his best to contain him. But, Lewis is such an outsize talent that the other stars cannot help but respect him, and Van Diepen’s renditions of “Real Wild Child,” and “Great Balls of Fire” are a delight to behold.
All of the cast members have exceptionally strong voices, are wonderful in solo performances, and even better in ensemble. The singers do justice to the material and capture the spirit of the original performers without ever resorting to mimicry. The music, however, is the main focus of this play, and it is bountiful. This production features 23 classic, vintage songs, including “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Long Tall Sally,” “I Walk the Line,” “Hound Dog,” and “Who Do You Love?” And, the cast harmonies on “Peace in the Valley” and “Down By the Riverside” provide some of the many highlights.
Scenic designer Brian Dudkiewicz has created the detailed set of the Sun Records Studio with Gold Records and other memorabilia covering the walls and a control room at the rear of the stage. The bright set has wonderful lighting by Mike Sali. The expert musical direction is by Mark Seiver, and sound direction is by Ty Smith. Diana Newington’s precise and authentic costumes perfectly capture the era and transport us back in time.
My one observation about the sound on opening night was that the volume was too high, particularly in the first act. The music is too good to be over-amplified, and I am sure this can easily be adjusted in future performances.
This dazzling, dynamic musical production provides for a spectacularly entertaining and fun time at the theater. By the time the play ended with a rollicking rendition of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” the audience was literally dancing in the aisles.
“Million Dollar Quartet” runs through May 6 at the Fallon House Theater in Columbia. For reservations, visit sierrarep.org or call (209) 532-3120.