On December 4, 1956, a legendary jam session was held at rock and roll pioneer Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley were labeled the “Million Dollar Quartet” by a local journalist and the moniker stuck to the recordings of the session released decades later.
In 2006, Colin Escott and Floyd Matrux unleashed a highly fictionalized and time-compressed theatrical version of the event also titled Million Dollar Quartet. After several successful bay area productions, Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse gives the North Bay a chance to check out this popular jukebox musical now running through March 24.
Jukebox musicals are usually comprised of a couple of dozen well-known songs connected by expositionary material and Million Dollar Quartet is no different. Sam Phillips (Benjamin Stowe) narrates the tale of the event, filling in the backstory and presenting the dramatic conflict (Will Johnny Cash sign a contract extension or fly the coop?) around which the music swirls.
At a recording session for Carl Perkins (Jake Turner) with Jerry Lee Lewis (Nick Kenrick, also music director) on piano, who should happen to drop by but Elvis Presley and his girlfriend (played by Daniel Durston and Samantha Arden) and Johnny Cash (played by Steve Lasiter)! In no time, there’ll be a whole lot of shakin goin’ on as we’re treated to “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “That’s All Right”, “Great Balls of Fire” and 20 other classics.
Director Michael Ray Wisely – who has played Phillips and directed this piece before – had the benefit of 6th Street expending significant coin on this production beginning with an impressive set (Conor Woods adapting Kelly James Tighe’s original scenic design) and imported talent. It’s not an easy show to cast as each performer must be a “triple threat” – an actor, a singer, and a musician.
Kenrick reprises his TBA Award-winning performance as Jerry Lee Lewis and steals the show with his kinetic piano playing and entertaining characterization. Local performer Jake Turner manages to hold his own against Kenrick as Carl Perkins, and Durston and Lasiter do fine in capturing the essence of their characters while avoiding simple caricatures. They receive good musical support by locals Nick Ambrosino on drums and bassist Shovanny Delgado Carillo.
Ignore the shaky musical history and often-pedestrian exposition that’s presented and you’ll find yourself enjoying a well-performed staged concert of some of rock and roll’s greatest hits.
‘Million Dollar Quartet’ runs Thursdays through Sundays through March 24 at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30pm; there are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.
For more information, go to 6thstreetplayhouse.com