FROM LEFT: Brandyn Day as Jerry Lee Lewis, James Barry as Carl Perkins and Zach Crossman as the drummer Fluke, in Maine State Music Theatre’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet.”

On a December day in 1956, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis found themselves together at Sun Studio, the Memphis recording studio credited as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. The future music legends held a jam session, which was recorded and became part of the annals of rock ‘n’ roll’s early history.

 

Now playing at Maine State Music Theatre’s mainstage, “Million Dollar Quartet ” is a dramatization of that event. It also concerns Sun Studio owner Sam Phillips coping with some harsh realities of life.

Phillips helped create a musical genre that grew too big and too fast for him to contain in the small, converted studio he built. As a result, he must learn to let go of some of the artists he groomed for success. As we find out, letting go isn’t always easy, even when there’s new talent waiting in the wings.

This jukebox musical is more about performance and rock ‘n’ roll heritage than the plot outlined here. But before we get into any of that, we need to talk about James Barry.

Barry plays Perkins and serves as the production’s musical director. Something electrifying happens every time Barry picks up a guitar, As Perkins, Barry rocks the house with blues-infused riffs and a cocksure smirk. He’s a performer and a triple threat: Singing, acting, playing. In Barry’s hands, the guitar becomes a fifth member of the quartet, and that member is on fire.

Barry plays Perkins as a man frustrated by a stalled career, looking to recapture the spotlight from another Sun alum whose career is in the early stages of rocketing into the stratosphere.

Then there’s Scott Moreau’s Johnny Cash, who both speaks and sings with Cash’s signature bass-baritone. Moreau is a dead ringer, sounding straight off Cash’s San Quentin live recording. Moreau’s rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” is so spot on, it’ll raise the hairs on the back of your neck, a testament to Moreau’s skills as much as to the song’s longevity.

As a man trying to stay connected to his family and gospel roots, Cash is likewise frustrated with his time at Sun, and is looking to move on to a place that will allow him to pay homage to his maker.

As portrayed by Brandyn Day, the then-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis is mainly here for comic relief — a kind of high-energy hillbilly who cracks wise often just as “Quartet” becomes in danger of taking itself too seriously in the first act. Day plays Jerry Lee as a rockabilly juggernaut, whose explosive energy isn’t so much contained as guided.

Elvis Presley has been portrayed and parodied so often over the decades that the line between homage and satire becomes blurred. Aris McKay Wilford’s take on Presley puts the King’s duck-tailed hair, babyfaced sneer and cocky attitude on full display during his performance. That’s in stark contrast to the character’s confession: A longing to get away from the hostile Vegas spotlight and back to the rockabilly roots he planted at Sun.

It’s important to note: Barry, Wilford, Moreau, Day — they’re all playing instruments in addition to singing/acting duties. On the other hand, a bare-bones rendition of “Down By the Riverside” spotlights the primary cast’s impressive vocal harmonies.

Tying plot threads together is Jason Loughlin’s Phillips, a producer sucking on the sour grapes — a man who has seen the artists he’s cultivated move on to bigger labels in bigger cities. The audience will have to wait until deep into the second act for any sort of emotional payoff. But when it happens, look out. Loughlin finally becomes something more than a narrator — in one outburst, Phillips’ frustration at seeing his biggest stars leaving comes pouring out in a genuinely heartbreaking display of emotion.

Everyone in “Million Dollar Quartet” gets their moment in the sun (even the rhythm section) — note how Brittany Danielle as Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne manages to cool things down with a sultry rendition of “Fever.” Day’s piano chops are formidable, and he helps close out “Quartet” during a finale that unleashes the first wild man of rock ‘n’ roll.

Directed by Hunter Foster (who starred as the original Phillips in the show’s Broadway run), this is a musical for music lovers — especially rock ‘n’ roll archeologists whose passion lies in the genre’s formative years. This was a time when rock ‘n’ roll was still a wild frontier, and a shake of the hips — something that seems so mundane by today’s standards — could still cause a national uproar.

“Million Dollar Quartet” taps into that nostalgia quite nicely, thanks to a talented cast and music that sprouted from the fertile soil of gospel, blues and country and grew into something bigger than anyone at the time expected.

A quick note: Thursday’s performance was preceded by an announcement by Maine State Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark that the theater — celebrating its 60th anniversary this year — has broken its record for subscribers. Judging by the audience’s reaction Thursday, the theater can likely expect continued success in the decades to come.

“Million Dollar Quartet” is running now through June 23 at Bowdoin College’s Pickard Theater. Visit MSMT.org for schedule and ticketing information. The Times Record is a media sponsor of Maine State Music

Theatre.

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