A Million Dollars’ Worth of Memories with Berkshire Theatre’s Million Dollar Quartet

What happens when you get four of the greatest, and soon-to-be-greatest, stars in the history of Rockabilly, Rock and Roll, and Country Music together for a jam session purely by happenstance? You get a night of pure American music magic.

On December 4, 1956, Carl Perkins came to Sun Studios in Memphis to record a new track of “Matchbox” at the request of Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips. Phillips asked then-relatively unknown 21-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis, whom Phillips had recently signed to play piano. Elvis Presley, the former star of Sun’s roster of artists, whom Phillips had sold his contract to RCA, stopped by with his girlfriend to hear the recording session. Rounding out the foursome that evening was Johnny Cash, another Sun star, who was about to let Phillips know he signed with Columbia Records the day after his current contract with Sun expired.

Billy Rude, Colin Summers, Alessandro Gian Viviano & Bill Scott Sheets in BTG’s production of Million Dollar Quartet. Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

What happened that evening in Memphis when the four performers got together became known as the Million Dollar Quartet. The group began a jam session that would go down in music history as a once-in-a-lifetime event. The playlist that evening included parts of and complete versions of everything from “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “Down By The Riverside,” “Long Tall Sally,” “I Walk The Line,” “I Hear You Knockin’,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” and a plethora of other hits. In fact, Million Dollar Quartet, Berkshire Theatre Group’s current offering at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, includes two dozen or so numbers.

The show is fast-paced and runs only about 90 minutes with an intermission, but you will feel as if you have been a part of music history and in on one of the most iconic concerts ever performed. The show, written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, opened on Broadway in 2010 and has since become a staple of theaters nationwide as one of the most entertaining jukebox musicals performed.

The set is a simple imagining of the Sun recording studio, beautifully designed by Baron E. Pugh. Arthur Oliver’s costumes, Jose Santiago’s lighting, and Nathan Leigh’s sound design create the perfect atmosphere to transport the audience back to that evening 67 years ago.

Cast of BTG’s production of Million Dollar Quartet. Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

Musical Director Colin Summers and Director-Choreographer Greg Santos bring the group to life and, more importantly, transport the audience to a long-gone era that evokes memories and, for many, provides a stunning recreation of the soundtrack of their lives.

It is the performances of the eight people on the stage that bring the magic to life. Brother Jay, the bassist, and Fluke, the drummer, played by Kroy Presley and Trey Snyder respectively, are superlative instrumentalists.

Emma Wilcox plays Dyanne, Elvis’ girlfriend, who is given her opportunity on the mic and does it with aplomb, class, and great vocals. Her rendition of “Fever” gives Peggy Lee a run for her money. A much less smoky and more optimistic interpretation breathes new life into an old standard. Alessandro Gian Viviano’s interpretation of Elvis seemed to be a bit off. While he mastered the hip swivels and gyrations that brought a generation of teenage girls to their knees, and displayed excellent guitar finesse, his voice never had that mournful longing that Elvis captivated the world with.

Bill Scott Sheets does a wonderful job inhabiting the spirit, voice, and unassuming attitude of the late Johnny Cash. His version of “I Walk the Line” brought down the house. Zach Cossman does an admirable job as Sam Phillips, who acts as the play’s journeyman and narrator. His is perhaps the least flashy of the characters on the stage, yet he is the glue that holds the story together. Colin Summers does double duty as Carl Perkins and Musical Director. His rendition of “See You Later Alligator” was another showstopper.

Kroy Presley, Alessandro Gian Viviano & Bill Scott Sheets in BTG’s production of Million Dollar Quartet. Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware.

The night, however, belongs to Billy Rude and his frenetic interpretation of Jerry Lee Lewis. His masterful keyboard acumen, playing upside down with his feet, jumping up and down on the piano, throwing the microphone stand, and his overtly sexual usage of the stand, make you know at once that Lewis is on the stage. The ease with which Rude inhabits his role makes you realize this is the part he was born to play.

Million Dollar Quartet is a fun show that invites its audience to time travel for a little bit of history. It’s not so much the plot of the play rather the music that is recreated that will stay with you long after the curtain has rung down. A great piece of summer fun, Million Dollar Quartet will have you leaving the theater all smiles and singing in the car all the way home. Quartet runs through July 16 at the Colonial Theatre on South Street, Pittsfield. For ticket information, visit www.berkshiretheatregroup.org or call 413-997-4444.

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