ORLANDO — It struck me about midway through the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre’s production of the Broadway hit Million Dollar Quartet: There’s some terrific talent on stage portraying rock music legends that we’re all familiar with … but this isn’t a show featuring imitators. That made a big difference.
The early days of rock & roll owe so much to the talents of pioneering legends Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash that we would expect a musical that brings all four together to go out of its way to nail their vocal style. With the exception of John Rochette, who manages to both look and sound eerily similar to Elvis, I never felt like Nat Zegree’s Jerry Lee Lewis or Bart Mather’s Johnny Cash sounded exactly like the originals. For me, that worked significantly in the production’s favor.
Million Dollar Quartet, about a unique night on Dec. 4 1956 when all four legends found themselves jamming together in a recording studio, has an actual story to tell, which means the actors create characters, not just Vegas-style Elvis (or Johnny Cash) imitators who play up to our preconceived notions of what the original performers sounded like.
During a talk back session with the cast after the performance, Zegree even admitted that he made no attempt to sound like Lewis, but rather tried to capture what made his music so exciting. In that respect he and the other four performers succeeded wildly.
Million Dollar Quarter, being performed at Orlando Shakes through Sunday, is a show you definitely don’t want to miss.
What is Million Dollar Quartet?
Million Dollar Quartet is a 2006 rockabilly musical by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux that dramatizes the recording session on Dec. 4, 1956 in a recording studio at Sun Records in Memphis, with guidance from Sam Phillips, the record company’s founder.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the production is that the cast of actors/singers are also the musicals, with Perkins, Cash and Presley on guitar and Lewis on piano. The show also captures a momentous amount of drama that went on behind the scenes.
Both Cash and Perkins had made the decision before that night to leave Sun Records and move to Columbia, a big blow to Phillips and his long-term ambitions for them.
There was also plenty of tensions between the performers. Perkins deeply resented that his hit song “Blue Suede Shoes” had become an even bigger hit for Elvis, prompting a lot of people to assume that Elvis wrote the song. There was also plenty of suspicion about the talents and long-term prospects of Lewis, who on that night was in the infancy of his career.
Along the way we get plenty of their classic songs — “Matchbox,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “That’s Alright Mama,” “Great Balls Of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ ” — that remind us of why these singer/songwriters would forever become rock and roll legends.
How is the Orlando Shakes’ Production?
As can be expected, the Orlando Shakes’ set design (under the supervision of scenic designer Bert Scott) is first rate, and the cast is an outstanding bunch. Rochette is an appealing youthful Elvis just starting to skyrocket to fame, Mather creates a Johnny Cash struggling with his loyalty to the record company that launched him, and Jeremy Sevelovitz does an excellent job as the Carl Perkins who starts to feel like he’s fallen under Elvis’ shadow.
John Gardiner is equally good as the studio owner who thinks his performers are loyal to him, only to find out the hard way how naive he’s been.
The real standout here is Zegree, who does a hilarious job as the hyper, high stung, manic Jerry Lee Lewis, who knows he has talent and is convinced everyone will instantly see that, but can be wildly annoying thanks to his arrogant, cocky attitude. He steals every moment when the spotlight is on him.
Million Dollar Quartet is far more than a pop nostalgia show. Taking place on a single afternoon, it gives us four crackerjack singers and musicians who really own the songs they perform, in an energetic and captivating production.
Where Can I See Million Dollar Quartet?
Million Dollar Quartet is being performed at Orlando Shakes, 812 E. Rollins St. in Loch Haven Park, through Sunday. To purchase tickets, call 407-447-1700 ext. 215 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book A Christmas Eve Story. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.