Review of Million Dollar Quartet at Stages St. Louis

    Stages St. Louis is closing is 2023 season with a rousing, fun-filled staging of the jukebox musical, Million Dollar Quartet. The irresistible score features songs recorded by four greats of American music.

    The book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux commemorates a jam session that took place at Sun Record Studios in Memphis on December 4, 1956. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins met by chance and played together for the first and only time. An article about the session in a Memphis newspaper dubbed the group the Million Dollar Quartet. The same name was applied the recording of the session that was released in 1981.

    The plot is based on real events, but the timeline has been compressed into one evening for dramatic purposes. The first character to appear is the legendary founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, who produced recordings by all four performers. Phillips is both a participant in the action and a narrator who introduces flashbacks about his earlier encounters with the artists.

    In the play’s timeline, Phillips has already sold Elvis’s contract to RCA, but Elvis is not happy with his new producers. He wants to work again with Phillips, who must decide whether to accept an offer from RCA by the end of the evening.

    The original purpose of the December 4 session was to make a recording that would revitalize Perkins’ stalled career. Phillips has paired Perkins with the feisty newcomer, Jerry Lee Lewis, on piano. Cash comes to the studio to talk about his recording contract. Phillips plans to surprise Cash a new one, unaware that he has already signed with another company. Presley drops by, too, along with his girlfriend, a singer named Dyanne.

    The Stages cast is splendid. Jeff Cummings’ Phillips has folksy charm and the toughness required to deal with hard times and temperamental artists. Edward La Cardo captures the appeal and the sound of the young Elvis. Scott Moreau bears a striking resemblance to Cash, both physically and vocally. Brady Wease basks in Lewis’s impish flamboyance. Jeremy Sevelovitz makes Perkins a good old boy whose frustration erupts into stunning rage when he confronts Presley about the choice that stymied Perkins’ career.

    As Dyanne, Shelby Ringdahl provides solid support and a torrid rendition of the Peggy Lee hit, “Fever.” The excellent musicians for both the session and the musical are Chuck Zayas as Jay Perkins (Carl’s brother) and David Sonneborn as W.S. “Fluke” Holland.

    The musical numbers are terrific under Keith Andrews’s direction and choreography and Sonneborn’s music direction. The action unfolds in a totally convincing environment thanks to Adam Koch’s scenic design, Brad Musgrove’s costumes, Sean M. Savoie’s lighting, and Beef Gratz’s sound.

    The set includes a feature that frames a delightful surprise after the jam session has concluded. That scene is followed by an epilogue that lets each member of the quartet cut loose in a fully staged number.

    Million Dollar Quartet continues through October 8 in the Ross Family Theatre at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, 210 East Monroe Avenue. Stages has thoughtfully provided an understudy for each part, so the show is almost certain to go on.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
    From the left, Brady Wease as Jerry Lee Lewis, Jeremy Sevelovitz as Carl Perkins, Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash, and Edward La Cardo as Elvis Presley in
    Million Dollar Quartet.