A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On at ‘Million Dollar Quartet’

“Million Dollar Quartet,” playing at Beach Haven’s Surflight Theatre through Sept. 10, is a jukebox musical. It also is one of those shows inspired by a true story.

“Million Dollar Quartet” suffers to some extent from both conceits. As with most jukebox musicals, its book, by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, is rather weak because its main purpose is not to tell a story, but to squeeze in as many popular songs as possible. As for history, beware. True stories, when adapted for the stage or screen, are often bent and twisted for dramatic purposes, and that is certainly the case here.

That said, “Million Dollar Quartet” is a much better than average representative of its genres. The reason? The music it samples is far better than average.

The show is based on a famous musical incident. On the evening of Dec. 4, 1956, four of the early stars of rock ’n’ roll met and jammed in the Sun Record Studios in Memphis. The “King,” Elvis Presley, was there, along with some princes, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. The gathering in part was planned, and in part was a matter of pure chance.

Perkins (played byTodd Meredith) had a hit in 1955 with “Blue Suede Shoes.” The owner of Sun Studios, Sam Phillips (Andrew Foote), was trying to produce another gold record and thought some boogie woogie piano would give Perkins’ rockabilly sound a little more edge. So he had Jerry Lee Lewis (Jason Cohen), a young but ultra-talented unknown, join in a recording session. As the evening went on, Cash (Stephen E. Horst), himself still relatively unknown except on the country circuit, dropped in, as did an already very famous Presley (Morgan McDowell) and a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans (turned into “Dyanne” for some unknown reason in the show and played by Adrianne Hick). The resulting jam session, taped by studio engineer Jack Clement (not represented in the musical), became legendary when its tracks were released decades later by Sun’s subsequent owner Shelby Singleton.

So the show is indeed based on a true story. But just Lewis, the only one of the four stars still alive, knows if the evening truly went down as Escott and Mutrux described it.

Did the incredible tension portrayed in the show really exist between the brash and cocky Lewis, who sensed he would be the next big thing in rock ’n’ roll, and a rather sullen Perkins, whose career was already going into somewhat of a lull? Did Cash really let Phillips know that evening that he was going to dump Sun for a larger label, as Presley had already done? And what was going on with all the jokes about Presley’s horrible movies, considering most of them were made a few years later, after he had gotten out of the army?

It is clear the book writers took liberties. They had Dyanne sing two songs, which Hick did wonderfully – “Fever,” written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell and made famous by Peggy Lee, and Dave Bartholomew’s “I Hear You Knockin’.” However, Marilyn Evans wasn’t a singer, but rather a dancer, and despite much research I could find no proof she ever approached a microphone that night. So their history is very much suspect.

On the other hand, their snarky battle between Lewis and Perkins adds much to the show in both humor and tension, and Hicks provides much-needed eye candy. So who cares?

All of the actors turned in credible performances playing the legends, not easy to do except in the case of Perkins, who, over the course of time, has become much less recognizable than the others. Cohen, though, stole the show, his energy somehow matching the manic drive of Lewis.

One thing is certain: Most of the songs in the musical were not sung on Dec. 4, 1956. The real recording session featured country, bluegrass and gospel much more than rockabilly or rock ’n’ roll, with numbers by Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow and Gene Autry – Gene Autry, not exactly a rock ’n’ roll legend – mixed in with the likes of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” “Softly and Tenderly,” “When God Dips His Love in My Heart,” “Just a Little Talk With Jesus,” “Jesus Walked that Lonesome Valley,” “Peace in the Valley” and “Down By the Riverside.” Just the last two survive in the stage musical.

What was not sung on that fateful night was many of the foursome’s hits, such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Who Do You Love,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” “Hound Dog,” “That’s Alright Mama,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’.” So an almost totally impromptu jam featuring old songs all the Bible Belt country boys knew was transformed into a sort of greatest hits show.

But what hits they were! And they were sung well by the show’s cast.

It was also nice to see live music return to the Surflight stage after a summer of the canned variety. The actors played their own instruments with varying degrees of musicianship (Meredith stood out on guitar) backed by stand-up bass player Jacob Callis and drummer Mike Lucchetti, who respectively represented Jay Perkins, Carl’s brother, and Perkins’ real-life drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland. All in all they made for a good concert-like experience that had the audience standing and dancing by the end of the performance.

Well, sort of dancing, as much dancing as a group of people mostly in their 60s or 70s can do. Hopefully some younger folks will read this review or hear word of mouth praise and come out not only to enjoy this show, but also to learn about the roots of rock ’n’ roll, at that time an extraordinary and revolutionary mixture of black blues, white country and everybody’s gospel.

Rock ’n’ roll may have been somewhat eclipsed by hip hop and mindless pop in the past few decades, but Neil Young was right when he proclaimed in his 1978 song “My, My, Hey, Hey” that “rock and roll is here to stay.” Going back to its beginning is a refreshing experience, to be sure.

Tickets for “Million Dollar Quartet” are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the box office, located at 201 Engleside Ave. in Beach Haven.

– Reposted from The Sandpaper