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The weather might have turned cold, but it’s smokin’ hot on Wilmington’s Riverfront. Delaware Theatre Company’s production of Million Dollar Quartet, directed with panache and energy by managing director Matt Silva, provides a musical antidote to any lingering 2021 malaise.
Rock your holiday socks
This show is a true jukebox musical, an often-derogatory descriptor of a theatrical genre. But the show is filled with 1950s hits that were actually heard by dropping coins into a jukebox. Inspired by an actual event, co-creators Colin Escott (book) and Floyd Mutrux (original concept) stitched together hits by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins into a play showing the four at the dawn of their careers.
These musicians (and others) were discovered by Sam Phillips, DJ turned producer legendary for finding and nurturing talent. He recorded them at tiny Sun Records and made them famous. Going up against big companies like Capital and RCA, Phillips worked in a Memphis studio carved from a former auto-parts store, pushing and prodding his artists in new directions.
Million Dollar Quartet uses an impromptu legendary gathering to showcase classic songs that track the rise of rock-and-roll out of rockabilly and gospel. The show opens in Sun’s modest studio, where Phillips (Scott Greer) has hired newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis (Jason Cohen) to play piano on a recording session for the great Carl Perkins (Christopher Wren, also the show's music director). Perkins was the father of rockabilly (his daddy made his first guitar from a cigar box and a broomstick), but his career has stalled, and both he and Phillips are looking for his next hit. Phillips has also invited Johnny Cash (Sky Seals), whose career is taking off, in hopes of renewing Cash’s contract.
Now a Hollywood star, Elvis Presley (Taylor Rodriguez) happens to be in Memphis and stops by with current girlfriend Dyanne (Laura Giknis), also a singer. The four men, mentored by Phillips, have the expected “musical sibling” clashes and rivalries, and how this evening plays out as Phillips records the session is the impetus for this play.
A clever pre-show announcement (“silence your phones but unwrap your candies any time—no one will hear”) also assures the audience that these four musicians are playing and singing—no voiceovers or lip-synching—and they are fabulous. Each actor channels their icon to musical and dramatic perfection, without imitation or caricature, in dramatically sound performances with the characters and their conflicts fully fleshed out.
Wren captures Perkins’s jerky, guitar-fueled moves and virtuosic playing. Cohen nails Lewis’s new-kid piano-thumping bravado. Rodriguez personifies Presley’s smooth moves with an almost shy self-consciousness about his fame. And Seals portrays Cash with reticence and respect for the music as deep as his voice. The four actors (all first-rate musicians) have appeared in multiple productions of the play, but there was no hint of performance weariness.
No small feat
Quartet features a treasure chest of 22 classics, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Walk the Line,” and “Hound Dog.” The program’s page of song credits and publishing information is itself a trip down musical memory lane.
Narrating the evening while often addressing the audience, Greer (the stellar Philadelphia actor with multiple Barrymore Awards) balances Phillips’s avuncular care, pride, and possessiveness as discoverer, hitmaker, and would-be controller of these men and their careers. The character of Dyanne is not simply Elvis’s arm candy: Giknis nails two delectable numbers, including a hot rendition of “Fever.” The musical scene is rounded out and well-grounded by hot drumming from Jon Rossi (as Fluke) and Roy Brown’s wacky upright bass playing (yes, an upright bass can be wacky) as Brother Jay, both characters from Perkins’s original band.
The show has become a regional theater favorite seen worldwide, including a 2010 Broadway stint and one in London’s West End. This DTC production is a worthy addition to the performance canon: it’s stylish, fast-moving, charming, and musically sound. Scenic design by Roman Tatarowicz is a clever combination of seedy and flash. Set painting recreates the 1950s acoustical tiles and linoleum of Philips’s down-home studio. And props to Props for Lewis’s specially constructed piano, built to withstand that furious playing.
Each man’s iconic look is captured in designer Richard St. Clair’s individualistic costumes. Ryan O’Gara smoothly lights each performer and scene, and sound design by Josh Bruton is well-mixed and—yes—it’s loud, but this is rock-and-roll. Not all R&R stories have fairy-tale endings, but that’s mitigated by a finale where the designers pull out some show-stopping flash. Director Silva ties everything up in a fast-moving production that leaves room for actorly introspection amid the bravura performances.
Vaccination check-in of the crowd was smooth and swift. This Sun Records recording of what was initially called “the devil’s music” took place in 1956 on December 4, the opening date of the DTC production, which runs for two more weeks. The theater offers free parking, and it’s a short walk from Wilmington’s Amtrak station. However you arrive for a look at rock-and-roll’s past and future, it’s worth the trip.
What, When, Where
Million Dollar Quartet. Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, directed by Matt Silva. $29-$65. Through December 19, 2021 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, DE. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
Patrons are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours before showtime before entering the theatre. Audience must properly wear masks at all times.
Delaware Theatre Company is a wheelchair-accessible venue with wireless assistive listening and large-print programs available. For wheelchair seating, notify the box office when ordering tickets.
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