A star-studded jam session like no other was recorded on December 4, 1956 at the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Lucky for us, audience members can now relive the magic of this night of music (presented through Great Lakes Theater) as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and “The King” Elvis Presley visit the Hanna Theatre stage at Playhouse Square in the Tony Award-winning musical MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET.
Sam Phillips, “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” plays host to his “boys” at Sun Studios, and this is where he brings out their raw talent. Sam narrates the history while the tunes flow and the stories shine.
Sam (played by James Ludwig) has a knack for finding a diamond in the rough. The character is driven, focused, and bent on making his small record label just as successful as the “big” companies like RCA and Columbia. Although it’s a non-singing role, Ludwig holds the stage just as well as the other roles, and even breaks through with a mean harmonica at the end. He is an effective ring leader, and a great center for the whirlwind of personalities that surround him. The character is successful and likeable.
Jerry Lee Lewis is played by Gabe Aronson, and his performance is like a fireworks display exploding into the sky. Along with pounding out the famous Lewis hits like “Great Balls of Fire,” it is no-holds-barred at the piano, as his technique has him hammering through the songs with his feet, his fists and his fearlessness. His performance is highly energetic and entertaining, and Aronson brings both talent and mischief to the role of a still unknown star-in-the-making.
Carl Perkins is played by James Barry, whose fingers fly across his guitar with ease. Barry does a wonderful job of playing Perkins’ skill against his desire for more than Sun Studios can give. Feeling overshadowed by Elvis, Perkins wants nothing more than for Phillips to get him “one more hit.” Barry plays a subtle back-and forth between gratitude and conflict, and gives Perkins a broiling simmer. Did you know “Blue Suede Shoes” is a Carl Perkins song? Try telling that to Elvis fans. Bitter = party of Perkins.
Johnny Cash is played by Sky Seals, who does justice to the Man in Black. His presence is calm yet edgy, his voice bold and gravelly. Seals’ performance is solid, and he presents Johnny Cash (who sold more than 90 million records worldwide) as a knowledgeable man who’s seen a few things in his life, and will go on to see a few more.
Elvis Presley is played by Sean Michael Buckley, who has the task of filling some pretty big Blue Suede Shoes. Although lacking the shine of a “cultural icon,” Buckley does a good job of capturing the young sparkle of a performer who is on his way to greatness. In this production, Elvis has just left Sun Records, as his contract was sold to RCA by Sam Phillips. Elvis, however, longs for the days of a smaller studio with people he trusts. Buckley succeeds in presenting a character who’s longing for the past while singing his way to the future.
Backed up by Brother Jay (Eric Scott Anthony) on the bass and Fluke (Dave Sonneborn) on the drums, the guys are also joined by singer (and Elvis’ date) Dyanne (Kristen Beth Williams) in the studio. As a note, YES: all actors on the stage play their own instruments!
The songs in the show are all golden in their own ways, and the set list is as follows:
Blue Suede Shoes
Real Wild Child
Who Do You Love?
Folsom Prison Blues
Memories Are Made of This
That’s All Right
Brown Eyed Handsome Man
Down by the Riverside
Long Tall Sally
Peace in the Valley
I Walk the Line
I Hear You Knocking
Great Balls of Fire
Down by the Riverside (Reprise)
See You Later Alligator
Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
The production is directed by Hunter Foster. The design team (all new to Great Lakes Theater) includes Kirk Bookman (Lighting Design), Bart Fasbender (Sound Design), Adam Koch (Scenic Design), and Lauren T. Roark (Costume Design). The production is well stage managed by Lucas Clark and Sarah Kelso, with assistant stage management by Amy Essick.
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET runs from now through May 26, 2019 at the Hanna Theatre in Playhouse Square. Tickets are $15-$89 and can be purchased by visiting www.greatlakestheater.org or by calling 216-241-6000.