As show time neared for Saturday night’s third show of the Meherrin River Arts Council’s 2019 season, the crowd was noticeably excited even though many members of the audience were not sure what to expect.
Katie Worley, who drove over from Sussex to see the musical play grinned as her 10 year old daughter, Lily, confessed that she didn’t know that they were going to a play but she was thrilled about being at her first live performance. Longtime MRAC member Betty Harris from Roanoke Rapids NC said that she was looking forward to the show and liked the title, but really didn’t know what to expect. When the lights finally went down and the performance of the Tony Winning musical “The Million Dollar Quarter” began, it didn’t take long for the crowd to realize that this was no ordinary show.
The premise for Million Dollar Quartet, based at least partly on real life, is the story of how on Dec. 4, 1956, Sam Phillips, known as the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” had Carl Perkins and a very young Jerry Lee Lewis in his Sun Records Studio for a recording session. Exactly what occurred during the spontaneous jam session later that night when Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash dropped by is open to speculation. What occurred at MRAC Saturday night is not — the audience loved it.
With a simple set and clever lighting, the talented troupe brought the show to life through an incredible score of rock n roll, gospel, R & B, and country hits. The irresistible tale of broken promises, secrets, and celebrations was both poignant and funny, and from beginning to end the action was non-stop and thoroughly engaging. “Veteran performer” Carl Perkins – played by Austin Hohnke with a perfect blend of frustration at the downswing his career was taking and determination to bring it back up, got the crowd going singing “Blue Suede Shoes.” This was later to be revealed as a foreshadowing of one of Perkins’s sources of frustration as he both wrote and originally performed the song, only to see it become known as “Elvis’ song.”
Daniel Durston brought Presley’s character to life not only with his signature gyrations, but also with a moving portrayal of the endearingly earnest charm for which the young Elvis was known. Peter Oyloe as Johnny Cash drew on the Man in Black’s gospel roots to beautifully emphasize the tortured soul who sang Fulsom Prison Blues and so many other hits throughout his career. And gifted actor Billy Rude, as Lewis, played under, over, and around the piano bench in between leaping onto and back off the top of the piano with the grace of a young lion. When the other “stars” teased him about playing a piano rather than a guitar, he drew one of the biggest laughs from the crowd as he drawled, “88 keys beat six strings every time.” From beginning to end, Rude kept things lively as the young whippersnapper of the group, and some of the most memorable comedic moments in the show were due in large part to his remarkably expressive facial expressions and body language.
And the back-up performers for the Million Dollar Quartet were just as impressive as the “stars.” Adrianna Lyons, the only female in the cast, was thoroughly engaging as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne, singing sultry tunes and dancing all around the stage in her electric blue dress and fire engine red lipstick. Fluke (Jon Rossi) as the drummer not only kept the beat going, but he quietly inserted his own bit of perfectly-period personality and humor as he interacted with the rest of the jamming band. And time and time again Bill Morey as Brother Jay Perkins stole the show as he turned his big gold-painted double bass to play it like a guitar, rode on it like a bull, held it upside down over his head, and finally actually perched atop the instrument as he angled it sideways – never missing a beat.
Hugh Hysell, as Sam Phillips, was the Father of Rock and Roll, skillfully portraying the internal conflict of a man trying to hold together a family, a business, and a career while encouraging rising stars of the day. The glue that held the show together, Hysell skillfully interwove bits of the real-life stories of the famous foursome around songs like “I’m a Wild One” and “Matchbox” and “That’s Alright, Mama” and “See You Later, Alligator”. And, somehow, stage manager Megan Barret, kept all the craziness on stage under control.
Time after time the action in the lively musical was interrupted by enthusiastic applause, as when the show began drawing to a close, the crowd surged up in a spontaneous standing ovation. By the end of the encores, young children were dancing in the aisles, and the faces of young-at-heart patrons were wreathed in smiles.
They might not have known what to expect when they got there, but they went home Saturday night knowing that the Meherrin River Arts Council had done it again, bringing solid gold entertainment to Southside Virginia.