Shakin’ at Zach Theatre’s Epic “Million Dollar Quartet”

by Julie Tereshchuk on August 1, 2017 in Entertainment, Theatre, Austin,
MDQ historical

Wear your dancing shoes for ZACH Theatre’s latest–my toes were tapping from the get go!

Austin, Texas is known the world over as the Live Music Capital of the World. So what better place for ZACH to stage “Million Dollar Quartet,” which tells the story of four rock and roll icons who changed the course of modern music and came to be known the world over.

Through September 3, ZACH audiences will relive the night of December 4, 1956. For that epic night, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins joined forces (for the first and only time) at Sun Records Studio in Memphis for what ZACH understandably calls the greatest jam-session ever.

Images courtesy ZACH Theatre

They came together to make music. And together they made history. And it is history that rocks! Expect to be doing a “Whole Lotta Shakin’” in your seat to such classics as the show’s opener, “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Taking on musical classics is always a risk, but the sound was authentic and brought regular bursts of applause from a capacity audience.

Casting iconic characters from recent history brings it own risks, as Dave Steakley, Zach’s longtime artistic zeitgeist (his official title these days is the tongue-twisting “Producing Artistic Director”) explained. Not only must the actors physically resemble the star they portray, they must be great singers in the style of that artist, and they must be excellent musicians that collectively can gel as a tight band.

Images courtesy ZACH Theatre

“It requires a certain amount of confidence and ego to go out on a stage and be convincing, because they are larger-than-life characters, and this musical demands that [the actors] rise to the occasion of what made these men superstars.” For Million Dollar Quartet, this cast has to avoid “cheesy impersonation” while delivering the essence of the artists, added Steakley. “I could not be more proud of the ZACH cast and how each of these actors is nailing it.”

It’s worth stealing your eyes away from the pretty much non-stop hits center stage and taking a look at the set–dripping with beautiful Gibson guitars and redolent of many of Austin’s creative spaces, it skilfully evokes the former auto-parts store roots of the little studio that could.

Jeff Jeffers ties the show together, playing Sam Phillips, the founder and producer at Sun Records. Cash-strapped Phillips famously sold Elvis to RCA for $40,000. That became a mere rounding error in Presley’s future earnings but kept Sun Records afloat to launch countless careers beyond the dream team of Cash, Lee, Perkins and Presley.

As well as packing in the gutsily reproduced hits, Million Dollar Quartet takes us into the struggles that all four of the quartet were going through: still only 21, Lewis was desperate to establish himself with Sun; Perkins was struggling to reestablish himself after his “Blue Suede Shoes” hit (and coming to terms with his friend, Presley, subsuming into his playbook); Cash was looking for the words to tell Phillips, the man who gave him his break, that he wasn’t renewing his contract; while Presley, as he would do throughout his life, was looking for “someone to be in my corner.”

Images courtesy ZACH Theatre

Bassist Adam Egizi, playing Perkins’ older brother Jay, more than deserves a mention. I haven’t seen such exuberant antics with the bass since the early SXSW sets by Billy Bacon and the Forbidden Pigs.

And, while we loved Gavin Rohrer’s go-for-broke energy and stage presence as Jerry Lee Lewis, his Louisiana accent sounded forced. We can only hope he relaxes into it as the run continues.

The finale brought the audience to their feet again in a musical crescendo that gave Cole an unexpected opportunity for an authentic in-character cameo to interact with enthusiastic fans as the King–an opportunity he owned. It looks like Steakley, the King of Austin theater, has another musical hit on his hands with Million Dollar Quartet.