A Million Dollars? But Can a Value Really be Put on This Legendary Foursome?
Million Dollar Quartet; a Review by Experience Westchester
Along with “Elvis”, Experience Westchester was in the building last week for opening night of The Westchester Broadway Dinner Theatre’s 197th production — Million Dollar Quartet! After filling our belly with Chicken Scallopine, rice pilaf and probably too many assorted dinner rolls, we were set to dance in our seat and tap our toes along with the talented cast assigned with the monumental task of depicting Rock-n-Roll legends Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. The latter is the King of Rockabilly and original writer/performer of Blue Suede Shoes, the Rock-n-Roll Hit Standard (To the Millenials reading this… Google it).
The play, which debuted on Broadway in April 2010, chronicles the impromptu, once-in-a-lifetime jam session with Presley, Lewis, Cash and Perkins as the four musicians convened at Sun Records’ recording studio in Memphis, TN on the night of December 4, 1956 (maybe Roy Orbison, another Sun Records artist, was stuck in traffic?).
The session, coordinated by Sun Records’ owner, Sam Phillips, resulted mostly in recordings of a collection of Gospel songs that all four label-mates grew up singing. Understanding the significance of the moment, Phillips called a local newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar. Right away, Entertainment editor Bob Johnson, along with a photographer, came to the studio and shot the historic Million Dollar Quartet photo and chronicled the moment with an article that appeared the next day in print, tagged with a headline aptly titled “Million Dollar Quartet”. (Attention Millenials! During a time not too long ago — but way before Snapchat — the public relied on something called newspapers for breaking Entertainment news).
My companion for the evening at The Westchester Broadway Dinner Theatre was a longtime staffer on a now defunct National Late Night TV program. So, similar to the Memphis Press-Scimitar’s Bob Johnson on that memorable night in Memphis, my companion was a first-hand witness to countless historical Rock-n-Roll moments. As a matter of fact, his work home for 20+ years was the Broadway theater where Elvis Presley was famously censored for his hip-shaking performance of Hound Dog. Further, for (3) decades+, and on multiple occasions, my companion directed and worked with the real Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and on one memorable evening back in the 1980’s, Sam Phillips! (Hey again Millenials — and everyone else for that matter —if you Google any of this, especially the Sam Phillips interview on YouTube, you’ll thank me later).
Needless to say on this evening especially, Experience Westchester was in full critic mode! Through all of the amazing music that we love so much — 23 hits were performed during this production — my companion seemed to be most impressed by Jason Loughlin, the actor who strongly portrayed the character of studio owner Sam Phillips.
The thoughts and words attributed to Sam Phillips were stirring as he explained how he discovered each of these (4) Music legends. Also, the passion was palpable as he detailed his prickly relationship with Jerry Lee Lewis. We think it’s nothing short of epic when the acting and dialog in a musical looms or weighs as heavy as that show’s score. On the other spectrum, Dominique Scott, who played Jerry Lee Lewis, certainly displayed his formidable chops as an actor, though we weren’t as impressed by his depiction of the legendary piano man’s playing style.
Of course there’s nothing like that real thing — but for instance, we couldn’t figure out if Mr. Scott was trying to display Lewis’ ability to play the piano with his foot, or if he just put his foot on the piano while playing. That’s a BIG difference! (Side Note: Jerry Lee Lewis played the piano with his fists, head, buttocks and his feet during live performances.)
What did seem to be very real was the cigarette smoke — obviously in the 1950's an acceptable aroma for a closed door facility — though in 2016, not so much…
The wardrobe and costumes were perfectly spectacular, the music was groovy and the crowd cheered in delight at this Hunter Foster-directed version of the homage to the Million Dollar Quartet. That said, and as you can by now tell, accuracy and authenticity is heavily weighed when we summarize a historical or period piece that is depicted in the fine arts. In many instances, it’s this type of art that is eventually accepted by future generations as fact — regardless of how much liberty the writers or producers rely of embellishment to get their points across. In the case of Million Dollar Quartet, the contributions and influence of Rhythm and Blues artists were certainly noted, though it was more of a glossed-over side note in the story. We kept reminding ourselves that Million Dollar Quartet is mainly about one fateful night and that we shouldn’t expect a full story about the history of Sun Records or perspective about the roots of the genre the world knows as Rock-n-Roll. This is a lesson about a moment and a person that played a part in bringing the revolutionary art form to the masses. So, no, you’re not going to hear significant mention of pioneering African American artists such as Little Milton, Rufus Thomas or Howlin’ Wolf, a few of the artists on Sun Records’ earliest roster…and the predecessors to the Million Dollar Quartet who really made that night possible. Those were just a few of the acts that were the true architects of the Rhythm and Blues music that Sam Phillips loved so dearly and later would introduce to general market/Pop — a.k.a. White — audiences as a new wave called Rock-n-Roll. Phillips’ role as a purveyor of Black Music and visionary in business, as significant as it was, is what made it possible for him to be recognized in history as “The Father of Rock-n-Roll”.
Millenials, and everyone else for that matter, should know, it was artists such as those on the early Sun Records roster and other music pioneers such as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Ike Turner who truly laid the foundation for Rock-n-Roll and the success of labels like Sun Records.
After all, no revolution in history, music-related or otherwise, was made in one night! Millenials take note…
All in all, cheers to the amazing sounds, sights and significance of Million Dollar Quartet, a remarkable story and play —produced beautifully by The Westchester Broadway Dinner Theatre. Oh what a night!
Million Dollar Quartet is Experience Westchester-approved
For tickets, visit: BroadwayTheatre.com or call 914–592–2222
-written by James Henderson for Experience Westchester
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