Review: 'Million Dollar Quartet' at Westchester Broadway Theatre
Nancy Sasso Janis
OnStage Connecticut Critic
Elmsford, NY - ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ is a jukebox musical essentially based upon a photo taken of an impromptu jam session between four musical legends in the Sun Records Studios in Memphis, Tennessee in 1956. What started out as a recording session for Carl Perkins with his brothers Clayton and Jay and drummer W.S. Holland, by chance turned into a jam session including a young Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. The taking of the well-known photo by Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records often dubbed “the Father of Rock and Roll,” is actually reenacted during the show.
The musical features 23 hits from the era performed with conviction by the Equity actors masterfully playing their own instruments. The musical legends back each other up and blend beautifully on some gospel tunes like “Down by the Riverside” and “Peace in the Valley.” There are also plenty of solos for each of the stars of their classic hits; “Blue Suede Shoes,’ written by Perkins but made famous by Elvis, is always performed by the entire quartet.
So the show is not without some resentment among the four singers and the owner of the small recording studio; Elvis has already signed with RCA when he drops into the Sun studio with a girlfriend. Mr. Phillips himself has been offered a deal to follow Elvis to RCA and the young Jerry Lee Lewis is both eager and crazy.
The 197th production at Westchester Broadway Theatre was directed by Hunter Foster and features a spectacular cast of singing/instrument-playing actors. It feels like the audience is invited to have a peek at a concert that could never have happened on Earth. The book was written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux with the original concept (inspired by the members of the quartet) and direction by Mr. Mutrux. The wonderfully detailed scenery and props (as well as the costumes designed by Molly Walz) were leased from the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, where some of the cast members had recently performed their MDQ role. My companion, who had toured the actual Sun Studio in Memphis, proclaimed it nicer than the original.The set on this stage was wonderfully lit by Andrew Gmoser and Andrew Koch provided additional scenic elements.
For the men, the costumes evoked the character they were channeling; they spent most of the show in street clothes for the studio session and changed to sparkly jackets for the finale. The token lady in the cast had to spend most of the show in a green, body hugging dress that would have benefited from better underpinnings; her costume change, still green, was infinitely better.
John Michael Presney, a singer/songwriter of Brooklyn NY, played the brash Carl Perkins. Sky Seals, an actor who is also a composer of musicals, was a standout in the role of Johnny Cash and the audience loved his signature songs. Dominique Scott nearly stole the show as the over the top Jerry Lee Lewis; he just completed a run of this show at Gateway Playhouse and also performed as Drew in the tour of ‘Rock of Ages.’
Ari McKay WIlford played the young Elvis Presley, as he had just done at Gateway Playhouse, with the just the right amount of impersonation. Jason Loughlin made his WBT debut and gave a strong performance as the studio owner that the young singers always addressed as “Mr. Phillips;” he was at his best as he explained how he discovered each of the four musicians and as he often chastised Jerry Lee. Bligh Voth, an Ogunquit Playhouse alum, sang well as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne; at the real session, Elvis' girlfriend was a dancer, Marilyn Evans. Sam Weber was amazing on the upright (and at times NOT upright) bass as Mr. Perkin’s brother Jay and Musical Director David Sonneborn played the onstage drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland.
Overall ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ was yet another excellent production at the longest running 52 weeks a year Equity theatre in the state of New York. My teen, the youngest patron in the audience, loved this one and began the standing ovation at the final curtain call. On the menu as the show special was a delicious chicken saltimbocca topped with eggplant, capicola and provolone. The signature drink was called “Million Dollar Delight.” ‘MDQ’ continues at Westchester Broadway Theatre through September 11.