Theater Review: Season Opener ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ Lives Up to the Hype at Theater By The Sea | art & life

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, RI – The musical “Million Dollar Quartet” takes audiences back to the birth of rock and roll and the start of tenuous beginnings as well-known musicians taste success and try to hang on.

It also has a surprise ending that fits right in with Theater By The Sea owner and producer Bill Hanney’s audience-centric focus. It promises to please anyone with rhythm in their bones.

The production is well worth the time and ticket price to get a feel for the music of the 1950s and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, both of which have gone down in razor-thin history so many decades and generations later.

However, let’s go back to the beginning of the show, which opens on December 4, 1956 at Sun Records in Memphis, TN, starring Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley.

They present the musical in a foot-stomping version – in this 89-year-old barn theater – of the well-known ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, which a willing audience ate up on opening night last Friday.

It was clear from that first song to the last that Colin Summers (Perkins), Sky Seals (Cash), Taylor Isaac Gray (Lewis) and Alessandro Viviano (Presley) were creating a sonic-like resonance that the loud applause from this audience showed that they they had met mark.

They had help throughout the musical with the accompaniment of Kroy Presley (perhaps a distant cousin of Elvis), who played double bass with distinction in so many numbers, and beatkeeper Matt Rapiejko on drums.

Emma Wilcox appeared as Presley’s friend Dyanne, who also sings some numbers in excellent vocals.

Perkins on electric guitar, Cash on folk guitar, Presley hopping between no-guitar and folk, and Lewis hitting the piano keys with extreme precision filled the theater with a cohesive and wide array of Sheet music for her gospel, country, blues and other rockabilly songs.

While they played, sang and acted simultaneously, high-steps from Perkins, twisted turns from Lewis, Cash in his usual rigid style versus Presley’s hip-flexing and thrusting twists, all seemed resurrected on the old stage for another jam 66 years later this barn theater in Matunuck.

Real and rare

This genuine and rare December 4th recording session reportedly brought the four together for an “unexpected” jam session at Sun Records’ studio. It only had one.

However, it is said that outgoing, wily and devious owner Sam Phillips, with an early keen ear for rock ‘n’ roll but not so good for business at times, may actually have orchestrated it.

Regardless, he called a newspaper reporter to document the meeting. Hence the show’s name, from the reporter’s review: “This quartet could sell a million.”

At first, Jerry Lee Lewis is alone in the studio at Sun Records with Phillips. The two vie for the right way to play rock ‘n’ roll. Sun is known as the studio that helped create the genre.

Soon Carl Perkins walks in, whose rising star had fallen and Phillips had to go back to heaven to keep his studio afloat after losing Elvis Presley to RCA Victor.

Perkins and Lewis clash, with Perkins condescending to the aspiring, self-assured Lewis, who acted like an adolescent and whose antics were aimed at meeting the star-sinking Perkins.

Next up is Johnny Cash, who Phillips is hoping to lure into staying with a three-year contract. However, Cash has other ideas about whereabouts. So did Perkins, but he didn’t show it.

Last comes the star of the moment, Presley, whom Phillips lost to RCA and whose success gnaws at the owner because it could have been his label’s glory.

The insecure Presley still pays homage to his ex-producer who got him started and who he says he wants to work with again.

Lewis, the upstart and antagonist of Cash, Perkins and Presley – all known for their breakout hits – becomes the actor who makes audiences laugh the most.

He’s brash, sneaky, incorrigible and pouty – the perfect youthful analogy to chart-topping men who don’t know what to do with him.

It was a fantastic counterpoint in an unpolished time when political correctness for respect had not yet taken root in society.

In this show, reflecting the rivalries, rising popularity of these stars and their connections to each other, Sun Records and Phillips produce both vignettes and a woven history of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950’s.

However, this is not the main attraction of this performance.

music to remember

The music played by these talented actors as they jumped, wobbled and shook on stage took over the night. The listeners thought so too after each number with loud applause.

A visitor to the theater, Tony Sciolto, and his wife Nikki Munroe are music lovers. They travel to regional concert venues as well as local venues like the Pump House Music Works to hear tunes from all manner of bands and players.

“It was very realistic, especially Johnny Cash,” said Sciolto, who at nearly 75 has followed music his entire life, prides himself on making better cover bands than they actually show up on stage, and is old enough to remember the rise of Cash. Perkins, Lewis and Presley.

Munroe gave the entire performance a big thumbs up. “I’ve never been to a bad show here and this is just another good one. That music was very good,” she said.

Almost 25 songs were played in the 90-minute running time of this musical.

Owner Hanney, always attuned to the needs of audiences and season ticket holders, later said that “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Matchbox”, “Folsome Prison Blues”, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, “Sixteen Tons”, “Hound Dog, “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” were the keys to success.

Channeling Johnny Cash, Sky Seals boomed in a powerful and raspy baritone voice that the real singer was known for.

Alessandro Viviano compiled a sufficiently real sound from Elvis Presley in an appropriate vocal range of three octaves, in which Presley narrowly produced a tenor, baritone and bass sound at the same time.

Even on some preview shows before opening night, according to Munroe, whose daughter left, the group hit the mark and “she just loved it. She had a really good time.”

However, the show’s ending involves more than the conclusion of a narrative plot. There’s a surprise.

And they hit the mark in that surprise ending. Check it out to find out.

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