A whole lotta shakin’ is onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse for Million Dollar Quartet. Back in 1956, when an actual intersection of Pop music icons Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis happened at Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., there was common wisdom that Rock & Roll was a passing fancy. But Sun’s owner Sam Phillips (James Ludwig) knew better. “Rock & Roll is not a fad,” he declares. “It’s a damned revolution.”
This production convincingly demonstrates Phillips’ proclamation. The first shots were fired in Sun’s grungy studio, a converted car repair shop lovingly recreated on the Playhouse’s Marx stage with a detailed design by Adam Koch, replete with gauges, stand-up microphones, a balcony and a raised platform for two accomplished back-up musicians Brother Jay on the acoustic bass (Eric Scott Anthony) and drummer Fluke Holland (Zach Cossman).
But the focus is on the stars. First up we meet upstart Lewis (Sean McGibbon), a musical phenomenon who pounds out frenetic melodies on a spinet piano. Rockabilly star Perkins (John Michael Presney) turns up, dismayed by the new piano player, who Phillips is eager to cultivate. Next to arrive is an established star, solemn Country & Western singer Cash (Sky Seals). Then Presley (Ari McKay Wilford), a past Sun talent wooed away from Sun by big-time recording company RCA, shows up accompanied by Dyanne (Bligh Voth), a gorgeous aspiring vocalist.
This pantheon of talent isn’t entirely comfortable mixing. Cash knows he’s about to jump ship from Sun, but he can’t find the right moment to tell Phillips. And the brash upstart Lewis rubs everyone the wrong way, at one moment joking that “I might just let you boys be my opening act.”
So this isn’t simply a jukebox show with good tunes. There’s some real drama as Phillips struggles to hold on to a stable of young performers he has nurtured. Doubling as the show’s narrator, Ludwig turns in a convincing portrait as the producer who the singers dub the “Father of Rock & Roll.”
McGibbon sports Lewis’s unruly mop of golden curls and handles the manic piano performance antics required for songs like “Real Wild Child” and “ Great Balls of Fire.” He’s a constant, cocky magnet for attention. As Perkins, Presney is the most impressive guitarist, taking the lead on his own songs, like “Matchbox,” and iconic numbers associated with the others, including Cash’s “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.” But we also sense his envious frustration with Phillips’ attention to others.
Seals has a solid grasp on Cash’s earnest, straightforward demeanor, and his low-end vocal range is exactly right for familiar numbers like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” Wilford’s Presley has perfected the singer’s louche smile and rubber-legged, gyrating stage presence, and he does a fine job with the sensual delivery of familiar lyrics. Voth comes along as arm candy in a brilliant green dress, but she holds her own for two songs, the steamy “Fever” in the first act and the charge-em-up “I Hear You Knocking” in the second.
Despite the stars’ evident individuality, they also sing together harmoniously on several numbers (“Down by the Riverside” and “Peace in the Valley” are given moving renderings). McGibbon, Presney, Seals and Wilford turn in startlingly real performances as actors, vocalists and musicians. How convincing they are is reinforced near the end of the two-act show when an actual photo from 1956 is projected and we hear a snatch of the music recorded that evening.
The production milks audience engagement with a series of closing numbers. Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” is followed by bows and a reprise of “Down by the Riverside.” They all leave the stage momentarily but return wearing glittering jackets for final lead numbers by Presley (“Hound Dog”), Cash (“(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”) and Perkins (“See You Later Alligator”), inspiring some genuine audience interaction.
Just as the audience feels it must be over, Jerry Lee Lewis bounds back on for a breathtaking, zany, physical performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Everyone was on their feet and “shakin’” — a rambunctious send-off for a highly entertaining evening.
Million Dollar Quartet continues at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park through Feb. 18. Tickets/more info: cincyplay.com.