Village Theatre’s audience-favorite darling, based (very) loosely around a heralded 1956 jam session with some of American music’s biggest names, is a big fun rock show. It closes out Village’s Issaquah season this weekend, then moves to Everett next week through July 28.
Way back in 2006, Village Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals — put on every year through Village Originals — held a one-time concert performance of a show called Million Dollar Quartet, with book by Colin Escott and Carl Mutrux. Quite immediately, it took off: finding its way into Village’s mainstage season (2007-08), then to Chicago, Broadway, a national tour, London’s West End, Las Vegas, a cruise line, and more.
Since its Village debut over a decade ago, Million Dollar Quartet has apparently been a runaway favorite in audience surveys looking for a return performance. This season, its fans finally got their wish — and delivered, giving the theatre packed houses throughout the run thus far, and with Everett performances already a hot ticket. Village, too, has delivered: the show is a lively homage to American rock stars of the era, and the talented cast ensures it’s a spectacle deserving of its icons.
This latest production doesn’t skimp on the talent — much of which is brought in from out-of-town, and has worked on the Broadway performance (director Scott Weinstein), national tours, or other high-profile runs. The quartet is Brian Grey (who excels as a broody Johnny Cash), John Countryman (electrifying as Jerry Lee Lewis), Skye Scott (Carl Perkins), and Jason Kappus (Elvis Presley). Cayman Ilika, a well-known local talent — from Always … Patsy Cline (see NWT’s review here) and others — is stunning as Dyanne. Rounding out the on-stage talent are Matt Wade (Sam Phillips), James “Rif” Reif (WS “Fluke” Holland), and Chris Jones (Brother Jay).
It’s easy to see why Million Dollar Quartet is a hit. It’s crammed with fan-favorite songs from some of the most recognizable American musicians ever to record. In this version at least, it’s got fantastic actor-musicians who put on one helluva show. It’s bound to make the Baby Boomers and up relive some sort of cherished musical memories. And even for the younger among us, it’s pretty well impossible not to have a few classic hits stuck in your head all night. (For me it was Walk the Line and, strangely, Pretty Woman, which got only a lick at a Roy Orbison mention.)
But it would be a stretch to call this show a musical, even a jukebox one. It’s essentially a concert from a super-band cover-band, with really good musicians and a high production value. The plot doesn’t even try to say differently: its story is that they’re making an impromptu recording, and then they play out that impromptu recording. Then, 80 minutes in, a narrative hook surfaces, in which betrayal shines through; but that quickly falls apart, and five minutes later they’re all returning to the stage in glitzed-out outfits after a faux curtain call in a faux encore to put on a faux concert together (which is, naturally, followed by another encore).
And … that’s the plot. The whole thing.
At least three things made it tough to settle into this show as mere feel-good entertainment. First, there’s the obvious fact, brought up several times in the show itself, that these guys all made their success off of so-called “Negro” music — in the show’s examples, learning guitar from them, listening to their radio stations furtively for inspiration but refusing to buy their records, or ripping off their spirituals. Second, the song Fever — performed well by Cayman Ilika as Dyanne, the only character who wasn’t a White guy — pays homage to a gross, made-up fantasy of how child Pocahontas found John Smith irresistible. And lastly, and most pervasively, the first half of the performance is nothing more than a pissing contest between these guys, and what feels like an invented one at that.
The show Million Dollar Quartet may have been “inspired by” a storied recording, but it has little to do with the real meetup. Although the impromptu recording actually happened — at Sun Records in Memphis, on December 4, 1956 — it was a jam session, and one that consisted primarily of songs to which the musicians owed their inspirations (gospel, country), not a riff-off of arena fan-favorites. In short, Million Dollar Quartet is an invented performance inspired by a famous photo of a famous jam session, not one that gives attention to the details and songs that comprised the actual meetup. In my view, giving a bit more due to the original would have made for a stronger show, and one more balanced between history and spectacle.
But the guys in this show can really play, from the four headliners in front to the bassist and drummer in back. Even Phillips chimes in, busting out a harmonica to wail on at one point. Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne — whose largely-invented character is clearly an afterthought — is stuck with a tambourine and maracas, along with vocals, but makes the most of them.
I lucked out and sat on piano side (house left) and got a real show from Lewis, who played while bending over backwards, with his shoes, and in other unlikely positions. Indeed, to keep up with Countryman’s antics as Lewis, Village couldn’t just use a regular piano for the show. To help keep the hapless instrument in tune, Village’s production team built a realistic wooden house for a hardy electronic keyboard that manages to keep the look of the original. The whole design team did excellent work creating a world that supported all the action.
And that’s the real reason to see this show: it’s a rock spectacle that’s hard to believe, with relentless talent near-impossible to describe, layered with vocals that apparently got Jay Irwin pregnant.
What can I say? You just can’t find that every day.
Million Dollar Quartet runs through 6/23 at Village Theatre in Issaquah, then 6/28 through 7/28 at Village in Everett. Tickets up to $84, available here and here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered in both locations; at Issaquah, gender-neutral single-stall restrooms are available on balcony level by talking with house manager. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.