“Million Dollar Quartet” may be less a show than a great big party.
Yes, there are actors portraying characters — very familiar characters, in most cases. And there’s a sliver of a plot.
But “Million Dollar Quartet,” which closes the 50th anniversary season at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, knows what it’s really about: the songs.
“Blue Suede Shoes” and “Great Balls of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Hound Dog” — early hits from rock ‘n’ roll come one after another, sung and, yes, played by the actors portraying four of the genre’s earliest white stars: Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. All of them got their start at tiny Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn.
And one night in December 1956, all four were on hand for a legendary jam session there. A snapshot records the occasion. This show — conceived by Floyd Mutrux, written by Mutrux and Colin Escott, and directed at the Rep by Hunter Foster — imagines what that night might have felt like.
There’s a hint of tension in the air. Sun founder Sam Phillips (the crisp and genial James Ludwig) has already sold Elvis’ contract to RCA, which brought him the money to keep his business going and develop his other artists. Now RCA would like to hire Phillips, too; it needs a rock producer who knows what he’s doing. It’s a great offer, but Phillips never liked working for somebody else. Should he say yes or no?
There you have it: the entire plot. And you can probably guess what Phillips decides.
That doesn’t matter, though. Even though the musicians aren’t best friends — and are sometimes rivals — nothing gets in the way of making music together. Their songs, solo or together, fill “Million Dollar Quartet” with the bold, irresistible sound of brand-new music.
As Cash, Sky Seals is already a man in black, upright and more mature than the others; he delivers a spine-tingling rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” John Michael Presney simmers as Carl Perkins, the earthy “father of rockabilly” who resents the way that Elvis has eclipsed him.
But that doesn’t stop him from joining Elvis and Jerry Lee in a powerhouse version of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” by the great, and now late, Chuck Berry. Elvis points out that the song was originally called “Brown-Skinned Handsome Man,” “but they made Chuck change it.”
Dominique Scott makes Jerry Lee Lewis into the original “wild child,” right down (or up) to his curly blonde wig (really, a little less Jerry Lee than Harpo Marx.) This elfin precursor of Mick Jagger moves dangerously around Adam Koch’s multilevel set, variously condemning and extolling the sexuality implicit in rock.
In fact, all four musicians came from the same sort of Southern-revivalist tradition that produced Lewis and his cousin, televangelist Jimmy Swaggert. Their shared background gives them a break from rock to harmonize on songs like “Down by the Riverside” and “Peace in the Valley.”
Sneering and shaking his hips, Ari McKay Wilford plays the king with a nice combination of authority and ease. He feels at home at Sun, as he hints he does not at RCA. Though he sports an unmoving, helmetlike wig, Wilford digs into “That’s All Right” and “Long Tall Sally” until there’s nothing left but the sweat on his scarf.
Naturally, Elvis comes with a date, a singer called Dyanne (the beautiful Ryah Nixon). Dyanne gives us a feel for mainstream pop with her performance of “Fever,” then goes back to roots rock with “I Hear You Knockin’.” Eric Scott Anthony and Zach Cossman round out the cast as session musicians.
If you expect the Rep to present classics such as “Hamlet” and big new dramas such as “The Humans” or “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” you’ll find all three there next season, plus more. But to end its 50th season, Rep artistic director Steven Woolf seems simply to have wanted to leave the audience smiling. Or maybe dancing in the seats.