Theatre Review: ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ by MusicalFare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre

Some nights are worth re-living again and again. Like December 4, 1956, the night four on-their-way-to-being-musical legends came together to make some music in the Sun Music recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Yes, you’re a witness to history, because this is the night Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins jammed at the place that launched their careers

Get there by March 31, and prepare to love it. . .

That’s the premise behind “Million Dollar Quartet,” initially produced by MusicalFare Theatre in 2017 for its Amherst mainstage, and now MusicalFare brought it downtown to Shea’s 710 Theatre.

And that’s the story. This is a music show, peppered with a little storytelling and some 1956 asides, you’re here to hear the hits and this cast doesn’t disappoint. The actual night 62 years ago lasted more than four hours: Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux who wrote the book based on Mutrux’s concept, condensed it down to under two hours with 23 hits. While it’s short on dialogue (you won’t miss it, trust me)  pay attention because there’s a little music and social history shared in real time.

With a couple exceptions, this is the same extraordinary cast from MusicalFare’s 2017 production. Jeffrey Coyle is star-maker and Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. Coyle’s take on Phillips is the perfect combination of loveable lug and shrewd businessman, and he’s a hoot to watch as he bops around the stage.

Brandon Barry reprises his role as Carl Perkins, posturing great guitar licks against his disappointment-based anger with Elvis Presley whose cover of “Blue Suede Shoes” eclipsed his original release in the ears of listeners. (Side note: Perkins’ version was released a month before Presley’s, soared  to #2 and spent 21 weeks on the music charts, while Presley’s cover only topped out at 20 with as many weeks on the charts. It was that night on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” however, that turned this into an Elvis signature song.) Barry’s got the playing chops and the right vibe to portray Perkins, the father of rockabilly, whose impact on music was tremendous but is more often overlooked.

The tall, dark, brooding swagger of Johnny Cash lives in Andrew J. Reimers’ performance. Close your eyes and listen: his vocal line in “Peace in the Valley” is like goin’ to church and then he swings back with a fierce “Folsom Prison Blues.” There’s tenderness in his “I Walk the Line,” a love song to his first wife, his first country hit that crossed over to the pop charts, too.

It’s the brash upstart Jerry Lee Lewis that tries to grab that night in the studio, and it’s Joseph Donohue III who makes it so on stage. The wild mop of hair and flashy red shoes are only the set up to his wildfire piano playing. He’s a maniac force on stage, too, sitting on the edge of the piano bench and pulling the piano back in place as it threatens to skid away from his fast-flying-fingers, with a whole lot of braggin’ going on, too.

Nick Stevens assumes the Elvis Presley role: Steve Copps who nailed the look, the sound, the swivel hips and curled lip in 2017, is up the street in Second Generation Theatre’s production of “Angels in America.” Stevens did a decent job of crooning the hits, but his overall performance was less dynamic.

Arianne Davidow is the (fictitious) lady in the studio, Dyanne, who arrived on the arm of Elvis, and she smokes up the stage with her sultry cover of “Fever.” She’s a sassy voice of reason, too, and shares some quiet wisdom with Coyle, almost like a conscience on stage.

Dave Siegfried and Brian McMahon round out the cast as the drummer and stand up bass player. They lay down the back beat and land a few good deadpan moments, too, just like a back up band should. And it’s so good to hear an actual trapset again, in this day of electronic drums.

This is one of the better jukebox musicals, and 710’s intimate venue emphasizes the goodness of it all. Chris Cavanagh tweaked Chris Schenk’s original set to fit the 710 stage and it certainly feels ‘50s enough, down to the vintage microphones.  Cavanagh’s lightening and sound worked, save for a couple opening night glitches and an audible hum for several minutes mid-show. Susan Drozd’s costumes and wigs were dead on, down to Dyanne’s platinum curls.

Producer/director Randy Kramer and Music Director Theresa Quinn brought out the best of this  cast to create a fun night of theatre. Get there by March 31, and prepare to love it, because as Sam Phillips said, “It really was such a night.”

Running Time: 2 Hours with no intermission.

“Million Dollar Quartet” runs until March 31, 2019 and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.