Ah, it’s one of those great rock and roll legends. The time was December, 1956 and the place was Sun Records in Memphis. Carl Perkins was recording that day, when Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash stopped by to visit. And some punk kid named Jerry Lee Lewis was there, hoping to audition for Sun Records honcho Sam Phillips.
That was the moment for what was dubbed “The Million Dollar Quartet,” and CRT’s final show for the summer is a rockin’ tribute to what was, in retrospect, the first super group.
I have been attending shows at CRT since 1992, and I have never experienced anything quite like the last 20 minutes of this show, which had most of the audience on its feet cheering and clapping. It was as much tent revival as it was theater, and thanks to the fact that all of the music is performed onstage by the actors, some of whom can do double and triple duty on other instruments, the electricity and excitement is right there on stage.
Carl Perkins is played by Todd Meredith, a former CRT intern who is also musical director and co-director with CRT’s Kerby Thompson. Of the four, Perkins is the least famous, but Meredith finds the resentment for Presley’s success that lurked within Perkins’ working-man rockabilly. Noah Jermain plays Elvis Presley, and he’s smart enough to hold off on the King’s signature moves until later.
Colin Barkell’s Johnny Cash has the right voice from the basement – one of his vocal modulations got an applause break – and he has that Cash way of pointing his axe like a rifle. And though it’s mean to pick favorites with performers this skilled, Gavin Rohrer quite frankly kills it as the Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis. Rohrer can really play that piano like Lewis, and I actually found him funnier and more charismatic than Dennis Quaid in Great Balls of Fire.
Besides these four amazing actors, the cast includes Bobby Becher as Sam Phillips; the day’s events are told from his perspective and so he breaks the fourth wall to fill in exposition and background. There’s a fantastic rhythm section: Perkins’ Brother Jay on bass (Nathan Yates Douglass, who finds at least 20 cool things to do with his upright bass besides play it) and Fluke (Michael Lucchetti) on drums. And then there’s Dyanne (Emily Seibert), a composite character based on Presley’s date on that date. She sings a few numbers with the guys, which never happened, but Seibert earns her stage time for sure.
As much as I appreciated hearing all the great rock n’ roll nuggets that were played that day – and we’re talking tunes like “Who Do You Love?,” “That’s All Right,” “I Walk the Line” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” – I appreciated the quieter moments, when Jermain as Presley puts down his guitar, sits at the piano, plays some simple changes, and the four men gather around and sing the gospel hymn “Peace In The Valley”.
At one point, Phillips poses the boys around the piano and takes a picture, and that moment, a screen lowers and we see the actual photo that was taken. Another applause break, and another sweet moment in a show filled with sweet moments. This is a good ‘un, kids.
Million Dollar Quartet, written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. Directed by Kerby Thompson and Todd Meredith, scenic design by Caitlynn Barrett, costume design by Colin Bradley Meyer, music direction by Todd Meredith. At Cortland Repertory Theatre through September 13.