Clarence Brown Theatre has opened its new season with a winner. “Million Dollar Quartet” will run through Sept. 22.
Director Kate Buckley stresses this is not a collection of impersonators, but “a cast of great musicians recreating the time, the music and one day in American musical history.”
Levi Kreis plays Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Studio, who was pivotal in forming and promoting young stars-to-be including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. When these four showed up at the same time (Dec. 4, 1956) during a Perkins recording session, Phillips encouraged and recorded their jam session. No performer was over 24; Elvis and Cash were just 21.
Interestingly, Kreis played the Jerry Lee role in the Broadway production of “Quartet,’” winning the 2010 Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical. And he holds together the local production as both narrator and conflicted protagonist.
Sean McGibbon, playing Jerry Lee Lewis, stole the show with exceptional talent and bizarre antics that kept eyes on him even when others had the spotlight.
At its heart, the play is about Sam Phillips – a man mostly broke – surviving on fumes, literally, since his studio is a former auto repair garage. He had sold Elvis’ contract to RCA for just $40,000. He realizes it was a bad business move, but he needed the cash to eke through the winter. Now his other stars are leaving for Columbia Records, and he’s left with the bouncing-off-the-walls, mad-as-a-March-hare Jerry Lee.
Will Phillips take a corporate job with RCA? Will Elvis find peace? Johnny Cash find God? Carl Perkins find fame? Come hear the good ol’ boys sing it out. From “Great Balls of Fire” to “Peace in the Valley,” the classics are there, performed well by enthusiastic musicians.
OK. You wish Cash had a bit more bass, Elvis had a bit more height, Perkins was someone you had heard of. But theater is about entertainment. And on that score, “Million Dollar Quartet” is a winner.