Back when a million dollars was really worth something, Sam Phillips was finding gold in the rich musical heritage of the poor rural South and launching a cultural revolution with the sounds of rock and roll.
In MuscialFare's latest production of "Million Dollar Quartet," that gold shines. The polish comes from the 60 years of rock and roll history that has passed since the night of Dec. 4, 1956, when Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley – four of Phillips's biggest stars – came together for a jam session at Sun Records.
The auto parts store turned recording studio never sounded so good, and that sound is energetically re-created by MuscialFare's talented cast.
The show opens, closes and is powered by the indomitable force of Joseph Donohue III as Jerry Lee Lewis. Donohue makes it clear why Phillips thought Lewis was headed for stardom, playing him the way Phillips wanted all his musicians to perform, with a visceral connection to the music that elevated it to something with a soul of its own.
He is something to be reckoned with.
In fact, he's a little too much for Brandon Barry's Carl Perkins, a seminal artist whose talent of late has been undervalued even though he went on to inspire the Beatles. On this night he's at a low point in his career, and in no mood for Lewis's shenanigans. Which is good for the audience, because he does his best to try to show him up.
Tall and dark, Andrew J. Reimers delivers the stature of Johnny Cash and a fair representation of his voice, capturing the country cross-over artist's troubled adjustment to stardom.
Elvis arrives in the person of Steve Copps, with a blonde beauty (Arianne Davidow) in tow, to pay his respects to Phillips, even though Sun Records has sold him off to RCA so Phillips can keep the studio afloat.
In any other universe one might think Elvis would take over the show, but it doesn't happen here. The strength of the production is in its respect for everything Phillips did. No one-trick pony, he knew how to identify and nurture talent in artist after artist. For Phillips, imitation wasn't flattery, it was death.
Actor Jeffrey Coyle, in the only nonsinging role, wears the recording impresario's mantle well.
"It was me giving him the courage not to sound like everybody else," Phillips says in explaining his technique. That goes hand in hand with his professional philosophy: "If you ain't doin' something new, you ain't doin' nothin'."
Like Phillips, director Randall Kramer knew how to get the best out of his performers, delivering a show with a freshness that reflects the newness of those heady days when rock and roll was born. We hear that in the growling versions of "Who Do You Love?," the howling "That's Alright Mama," in the out of control energy of "Great Balls of Fire" and in the insecurities of Sun's stars.
It was a brave new world for these young artists, all of whom grew up poorer than dirt, working at first for pennies a day and finding escape in their music. In 1956, Cash and Elvis are adjusting to life at the top and the strains that puts on loyalty. Perkins is realizing how temporary it all might be.
And Jerry Lee Lewis? He's the kid on Christmas morning, just getting a taste of all the wonders yet to come. For the full hour and a half of the show, Donohue is unstoppable. He takes the young Lewis to the wildest of wild man modes, backing it up 1,000 percent with every single key of his piano. (So much so that they might wear out more than one instrument during the run of the show.)
The audience gladly follows along, for a fast and furious performance of more than two dozen Sun Records hits. The "Folsom Prison Blues" give way to "Down by the Riverside" before taking off with "Long Tall Sally," letting us catch our breath before igniting "Great Balls of Fire."
All the musical performances --- individually and together -- are on target, including Davidow's sultry rendition of "Fever" and the fine back-up of Brian McMahon on drums and Dave Siegfried on bass.
It's all great fun. Go for the music, get blown away by the musicianship and bask again in the Sun shine.
"Million Dollar Quartet"
4 stars (out of 4)
Presented by MuscialFare Theatre at Daemen College, 4380 Main St. Performances are through May 28. Tickets are $43 through musicalfare.com.