Foot stomping and smiling faces filled the Bucks County Playhouse on opening night of Million Dollar Quartet, an electrifying revival of a 2007 musical based on the surprise recovery of a once-in-a-lifetime jam session. It took place at Sun Records on Dec. 4, 1956, and involved Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Colin Escott, a historian of early rock, and Floyd Mutrux turned it into a jukebox musical in which Sam Phillips fights to keep his young stars under contract. James Ludwig is a picture-perfect Phillips, a charming storyteller for the audience and a colorful, baiting mentor to his protégés, slipping in quirky Southern metaphors along the way: (To Lewis: "You're as useless as a screen door on a submarine.") Phillips also had a genius for discovering talent and finding the soul of the Deep South through music.
The set and light designs of Josh Smith and Kirk Bookman recreate Sun Records. A triangular stage swathed in restful blue light is full of instruments. A glassed-in recording booth and a bright-red sign overhead complete the scene, where some very talented musicians belt out more than 20 numbers, with lush harmonies and thundering rhythms.
Ari McKay Wilford could win an Elvis impersonator contest. Sky Seals is so like Johnny Cash it is scary. Brandyn Day captures Lewis' music, if not his looks. And John Michael Presney makes the lesser light of Carl Perkins shine brightly. Elvis' sexy girlfriend Dyanne (Ryah Nixon) croons a sultry "Fever," and Fluke Holland (Zach Cossman) and Jay Perkins (James David Larson) complete the ensemble.
These musicians never forget their roots in country and gospel and turn out a beautifully harmonized "Peace in the Valley." They were also attracted to black music (Phillips was a leader in recording African American rhythm and blues), and just before intermission you hear the mix of influences as "Rockin' Robin" blends into "I Shall Not Be Moved."
Yes, there is an intermission. Director Hunter Foster extends the 90-minute show, adding four more numbers to the finale to great effect: A tragic tone is modified (but not erased), you feel you are at a jam session (for the first time), and the audience is magically caught up in a riotous singalong under sweeping theater lights.
Rocking music makes the night. But you also learn about the troubled lives of Phillips and his turbulent stars. And through them, both the origins of rock and roll and the complicated world of the Deep South are on full display.