“Once in a lifetime” is how Nashville music producer Sam Phillips described the December night in 1956 when music legends Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley gathered in his Sun Records studio and jammed.
The play capturing that session, Million Dollar Quartet, helps Theatre by the Sea relaunch production after a two-year COVID-19 hiatus, bringing classic songs and the enthusiasm of young, brash musicians into a two-hour experience like no other.
Now onstage at the Wakefield theatre, Million Dollar Quartet is rich with the songs that made the four famous – Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line,” Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” Presley’s “That’s All Right” and “Hound Dog” and Perkins’ “Who Do You Love?” and “Party.”
The actors bringing the legends to life are more than impersonators. Each offers a realistic and charming portrayal of the stars, from Sky Seals jutting the guitar neck and left arm out like an arrow as Cash was known to do to the twerking gyrations Alessandro Viviano masters for Elvis the Pelvis. Taylor Isaac Gray infuses just the right amount of jitters and jumpiness into Lewis which contrasts beautifully with the coolness Colin Summers lends to Perkins.
The play is, of course, about more than the music, although the audience seemingly would have been just fine with a full-on concert of their favorites. Phillips, played strongly by Michael Santora, gathered three of his biggest musical finds – Perkins, Cash and Presley, who left the Sun Records label but remained loyal to the man who discovered him – to celebrate Cash singing a contract extension. Lewis crashed the party as the eager newcomer, razzed by the veterans but determined to be noticed.
The contract signing doesn’t go as planned, yet Phillips regroups, announcing he’ll focus on his newest find, Roy Orbison. Along the way, flashbacks show how the producer coaxed tones out of a naïve Elvis saying, “Sing to me the way you’d sing to Jesus,” or grappled with Cash’s reluctance to cross over into the new sound of rock and roll.
This production of Million Dollar Quartet is upbeat and energized, getting the audience tapping their toes and bobbing their heads along with the sound from the very beginning. The best moments belong to Seals whose voice coats Cash’s words with gravelly goodness, dipping down deep for notes in “Sixteen Tons.” Staging moments both inside and outside the windows of the storefront studio lend a sense of voyeurism that is incredibly effective.
On stage through June 18, Million Dollar Quartet is a sizzling homage to the birth of a musical genre that many predicted would never last. For tickets, go to theatrebythesea.com.