Theatre Reviews
Photo by Phillip Hamer courtesy of Stages St. Louis

Written by Michelle Kenyon

STAGES St. Louis is closing out their season with a rousing tribute to good old fashioned Rock 'n Roll, and some of the iconic musicians who helped popularize it in the 1950's. Using a true event as the basis for a fictionalized story, “Million Dollar Quartet”--directed by Keith Andrews--also provides an excellent showcase for its cast and a collection of memorable songs. It's the musicality and presence of the cast, as well as the simple but effective production values, that make this show a delightful, energetic, crowd-pleasing production that celebrates not only the celebrities represented, but the music itself.

The story is based on a gathering at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee in December, 1956, in which Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all met at the now-legendary studio and recorded some songs together for studio owner and producer Sam Phillips. The iconic "jam session" has become the stuff of legend, but book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have played up the "legendary" aspect of the story even more, taking the opportunity to add some biographical details on the performers and Phillips, as well as including many of the performers' most recognizable hits. The setup involves Philips trying to surprise Cash with a contract renewal, and RCA trying to court Phillips to sell Sun Records and move to New York to work with Elvis again. Also, Elvis did apparently have a girlfriend with him that day, but she wasn't a singer, so the writers have created the character of Dyanne, an aspiring chanteuse who joins in on the jam session singing lead on some popular hits and harmonizing with the guys on other songs.

The performances are nothing short of stellar, and the casting of the singers and musicians is ideal, with Jeremy Sevelovitz as Carl Perkins on vocals and guitar, and Chuck Zayas as Carl's brother Jay Perkins on bass being the standouts in terms of pure musicianship. Everyone is in excellent voice, with Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash managing to capture Cash's deep vocal sound with impressive accuracy, and Edward La Cardo as Elvis has the necessary moves, vocals, and sheer charisma of the young King of Rock 'n Roll. Brady Wease is a scene-stealer as the showboating Lewis, as well, with great vocals and impressive piano playing. Shelby Ringdahl as Dyanne also adds a likable personality and strong vocals to the mix, and music director David Sonneborn accompanies the group with style as drummer W.S. "Fluke" Holland. The production's emotional anchor is the excellent, personable Jeff Cummings as Phillips, who provides much of the dramatic weight of the production and makes the somewhat thin plot work smoothly.

Ultimately, though, it's the music that makes this show work, and sheer musicianship and atmosphere, which is ably supported by means Adam Koch's detailed set, Brad Musgrove's excellent period costumes, Sean M. Savoie's vibrant lighting, and the cohesive sound design by Beef Gratz.

“Million Dollar Quartet” is both a history lesson and a celebration of the true joy of music, especially old-school rock 'n roll and pop, traditional country, and some old-time gospel hymns. It's a marvelous tribute to these iconic performers, as well as their seemingly boundless talent and musicality.

Performances of Million Dollar Quartet from STAGES St. Louis  continue at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until October 8. For more information, visit the STAGES St. Louis web site.

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