FRP’s Million Dollar Quartet cast hams it up, rehearsing the final encore. Nat Zegree (as Jerry Lee Lewis) plays piano while sitting on it, as in the show. (Carl Perkins) perches on the bass that Eric Anthony (Jay Perkins) plays. Johnny Kinnaird (Johnny Cash) stands at right, while other rhythm guitarist Chris Fordinal (Elvis Presley) has slid onto the floor. Photo by Scott Treadway.
Elvis Presley (Chris Fordinal), Jerry Lee Lewis (Nat Zegree), Johnny Cash (Johnny Kinnaird) and Carl Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz) were such valuable music talent that a Memphis radio disc jockey called them The Million Dollar Quartet. They got their big breaks from slick Sun Records owner-producer-engineer Sam Phillips (Willie Repoley).
The young musical lions (all in their twenties) clash in personality, egos and greedy pursuit of hit records, popular image, fame, more lucrative contracts and other perks. The musical percolates many laughs and somber reflection over aspirations, loyalty and betrayal.
Heads were bobbing in the mostly sold-out barn from a sentimental sock hop-like 90-minute, 21-song sock journey. The four stars are a superb cover band with two session players, playing the full musical sound live on stage. Rockabilly, R&B, rock, country and gospel are the deceased stars’ early styles. These actors-musicians won FRP roles from national auditions.Vocals, musicianship, acting, pacing, direction, staging, costuming, lighting and sound are all first-class. New York-based director James Moye played Phillips on Broadway.
Musical direction is by Alex Shields. Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux wrote the Tony Award-winning musical. The show runs through May 21, on FRP’s Clyde and Nina Allen Mainstage.The setting is Sun Studio. The Million Dollar Quartet one-day jam was taped there Dec. 4, 1956, and released on CD in 1990. All four future rock Hall of Famers converged in phases in tiny Sun Studio (a former auto shop) in the blues haven of downtown Memphis, for the only time since Phillips launched Sun Records in 1952.Phillips is known as the Father of Rock ‘n Roll, for discovering several stars in the mid-Fifties. He widened appeal of rhythm and blues that was labeled black music, by getting whites to record its earthiness and by blending in country for an eclectic rock sound.Veteran Asheville actor Repoley masterfully plays a cotton-picker as a boy who relates to these emerging stars’ poor upbringing and crave for stardom. The Sun song Sixteen Tons is about a cold miner “another day older, and deeper in debt…I owe my soul to the company store.”Like a politician, Phillips pushes class-conflict buttons more readily than sound controls in the glassed-off studio booth.
The one-time radio DJ stirs emotion, and uncloaks inner spirit. In a flashback of their first encounter, he gets Elvis to skip Dean Martin-like crooning and forge a distinctive style. Extracting Elvis’ raw vocal energy, Phillips like a preacher demands to “hear your soul; sing to me the way you’d sing to Jesus!”Phillips efficiently narrates over parts of many songs, to spark the pace. He believes in rock as more than a brief fad. He relishes perfecting songs by engineering them alone in his studio, “where the soul of a man never dies.” He foresees more Sun hits, with such stars. In a fury, he reasons that by discovering these four they owe him allegiance.This even after in ‘55 Phillips accepted RCA’s offer, selling Presley’s contract for $35,000. Phillips shaved debt, and invested in the Holiday Inn chain, merely three years after it opened its first hotel in — in his Memphis. Elvis had minor rockabilly hits on Sun.
The jam ensues as Phillips weighs RCA offer to buy his label, and reunite him with rock’s emerging King. Fiercely-proud Phillips crows to the audience he prefers to sell 100 records on his label than a million on one run by someone else. He did decline RCA’s offer. He did not sell Sun’s catalogue until 1969.
This is the famed posed shot of the Million Dollar Quartet. L-R are Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley (sitting) and Johnny Cash.
Most arrive to the studio by chance for various reasons. Phillips hops on the chance to group and tape them. This was slated as Perkin’s recording session. In the play, Elvis’ fictitious curvy singer-girlfriend Marilyn Evans (Ryah Nixon as “Dyanne”) is lead on the songs as Fever. Backing them are studio musicians Fluke Holland (Paul Babelay) on drums and Perkin’s bassist brother Jay Perkins (Eric Scott Anthony).
Early on we hear Perkins’ classic Blue Suede Shoes. Months before the jam, it was Sun’s first certified million-seller and modern music’s initial “triple crown winner” — by topping pop, blues and country charts. Later Perkins does See You Later, Alligator with Phillips on harmonica.Elvis’ songs include Hound Dog, his first hit (in ’54) That’s All Right (Mama), and a crowd-frenzying cover of raucous Long Tall Sally. Cash’s hits in the play include Folsom Prison Blues, Sixteen Tons and Walk the Line and are also well received.Lewis is uber-paced, invigorating and theatrical with Great Balls of Fire, Wild Child and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.Perkins and Presley share lead vocals on such songs as Brown-eyed Handsome Man. They four sing in unison on the gospel hit Down by the Riverside, the first song in the play with all four together. And they do their combined (Let’s Have a) Party, a hit in 1957.Fordinal covers Elvis’ vocal range very well, and drew loud crowd approval. New York-based, recent Texas State alumnus Fordinal resembles early, Thin Elvis.The Lewis and Elvis roles are the quartet’s showmen. Fordinal is playful as cordial, young (age 20) Elvis from tiny Tupelo, Miss. He is on the verge of gyrating to the top. He shows some sizzle during songs, in the musical. But he deftly contrasts crazier Lewis by not going over the top — apart from briefly sliding backside onto the floor, in the final encore.
The play is set in Sun’s heyday, two weeks before Perkins actually recorded Blue Suede Shoes. Lewis is ready to soar, and months later Roy Orbison is Sun’s next star.
Recreating the posed quartet photo in the same order are, L-R, Nat Zegree (as Jerry Lee Lewis), Jeremy Sevelovitz (Carl Perkins), Chris Fordinal (Elvis Presley) sitting, and Johnny Kinnaird (Johnny Cash). Photo by Scott Treadway.
A singing dynamic is a battle of egos and showmanship, as the usual friendly competition boils over in close quarters. Phillips has his favorite son take Lewis’ place sitting behind the piano, for a famed posed photo of the Million Dollar Quartet.
Lewis is a threat as prospective new star, and brash as a bat out of hell. Zany Zegree steals most of the play, getting howls for antics, expressions and smack talk. The diminutive native Michiganian bats his eyebrows, grins even sillier than Dennis Quaid did on the big screen, flirts with Elvis’ squeeze, moves his piano center stage after the others depart, and climbs all around it while playing.
Zegree as Lewis did plays with his feet, other times blindfolded, upside down, or backwards — behind his midsection, while sitting on the piano facing upstage.
Nothing seems overkill, given prior portrayals of Cajun Wild Child Lewis. Zegree’s campy, acrobatic, wild-gesturing performance of Lewis tops them all. It harkens to Tom Hulce’s “Amadeus,” the ’84 film about bizarre, histrionic classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. “Killer” Lewus unleashes frenetic piano solos on Perkins’ recordings, angering him. He taunts the guitarist that “88 keys got six strings beat — every time.”
Perkins snaps back he wants no part of the flashy-dressed, primping, curly-haired “Liberace” drowning out tracks. But in jamming amicably toward the end, these two face and grin at each other.
Perkins is the one of this Fab Four without a hit movie about him and with the least written, rendering him more open to interpretation. Reports are he first played guitar at age 7, on one his father made with a cigar box, broomstick and bailing wire. Perkins was 6-foot-1, Elvis 5-11. The two actors playing them are even taller — standing out in jams.
As gifted lead guitarist Perkins, New York native Sevelovitz electrifies the songs with brisk licks. He is expressive — more modern than Perkins and most peers. He even channels Jimi Hendrix, in strumming notes behind his head in an encore. If the script reflects Perkins truly, then he is up to the quartet’s battle of bravado and verbal jousting.
Moving scenes include when Perkins complains to his boss that Phillips “gave up” on him and let Elvis usurp his big hit and surpass him into prominence. This was as Perkins was hospitalized with a broken neck, after his near-fatal car crash near Dover, Del. en route to New York City, to perform on Perry Como and Ed Sullivan TV shows. The crash was on March 22, 1956. Perkins’ car struck the back of a pickup, and landed in a ditch with Perkins face down in a foot of water. Drummer Holland rolled Perkins over, to prevent drowning.
Two months later, the lanky Tennessean did sing Blue Suede Shoes on TV, on Como’s show. But a week into his hospital stay, Perkins saw Elvis sing that song on TV first. As his character said in the play, many mistakenly thought Elvis recorded it first. It suddenly became Elvis’ song, despite being a much lesser hit for him.
Phillips reportedly changed the chorus’ famed line to “Now go, ‘cat,’ go!” to be cooler. Sun colleague Cash suggested the theme of a man stuck up over his fancy shoes.
King of Rockabilly Perkins peaked in ’56, though The Beatles would record five of his songs in 1964. His envy and bitterness in the script is revealing about creative performers. All four of the quartet had documented bouts with booze, and some with pills. They dealt with tragedy early, and often. They exchange memories of deceased siblings, in the play.
Elvis two decades later was a glittery, gluttonous, pill-popping Vegas showman. Thus it is chuckling irony he tells Phillips in the play he will never work Vegas again. This was after a stuffy Frontier Hotel crowd booed him offstage, as he warmed them for comic Shecky Greene in March of ’56.
The quartet’s country cowboy, Cash, is accurately stoic and appreciably restrained in Kinnaird’s portrayal. He is spot-on with monotone baritone singing and talking, reflecting the strong silent type. Kinnaird played Cash for three years in the musical’s original cast in Chicago, then New York.
He is clad as the Man in Black/The Undertaker, a tough ex-con minus that knife scar. Cash mostly avoids the fray. But he moans about Elvis, that the “hillbilly went Hollywood” with movies. Cash’s quest to record gospel put him at odds with Phillips.
For tickets ($15-40), call 693-0731 or check www.flatrockplayhouse.org.