BRUNSWICK — Maine State Music Theater has opened their 2018 season with the Tony Award-winning musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” a production filled with early rock-n-roll classics and some of the story behind the music and musicians.

“Million Dollar Quartet” was the name coined by record producer Sam Phillips for singular moment in history when his top current and former performers were under one roof at the same time, the famed Sun Studios in Memphis. The performers? Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Rock-n-Roll pedigree doesn’t get much better than that.

I was not surprised to hear of this production, in the wake of the success of last year’s MSMT opening, “Always Patsy Cline,” featuring the person and music of the legendary performer.

While “Patsy” follows a period of months in her life, “Million Dollar Quartet” is set in just one afternoon, based on reality, fictionalized to give the audience a sense of all the talent and musical history represented by this impromptu summit of men, all of whom were discovered or nurtured from obscurity to stardom by Phillips.

The show features discussions between the characters which give us insight into their relationships, but the real star is the music and, in this case, the musicians.

Jason Loughlin is engaging as Sam Phillips, treating the audience as confidante to relay the pertinent back stories. When the actors portraying the members of the quartet begin to appear on stage, you can be excused for worrying that their characters may be caricatures of the real deal.

What becomes evident is that the producers and performers have studied these giants of rock-n-roll and work hard to emulate the mannerisms for which they are known in a way that is authentic.

Lewis’ hair flip and crowd-pleasing antics, Perkins and Presley’s unique footwork, Cash’s even demeanor and the very singular way each held or approached their instruments. It’s a lovely homage to the originals.

At first, I was also concerned that they would be acting the part, but not actually playing the instruments. This could not be further from the truth. Each actor is a talented musician in their own right and the audience is blessed to experience the talent of the actors and of the originals simultaneously.

The leads are Ari McKay Wilford as Presley; Brandyn Day as the frenetic and irrepressible Lewis; Litchfield, Maine native Scott Moreau as Cash, while production musical director James Barry portrays Perkins.

The latter two starred in the original national tour of “MDQ” and director/choreographer Hunter Foster was the original Sam Phillips in the Broadway production, bringing an incredible depth of experience and talent to this show.

Playing the studio musicians are the talented Zach Crossman and Eric Scott Anthony, who plays an upright bass in ways you likely have not witnessed. Portraying an additional fictionalized character, songstress Brittany Danielle adds perfect levels of femininity to balance out all of the very powerful male presence . All of this genuine musical talent contributes to the sense of this truly being a jam session in the best sense of the phrase.

The musical is filled with couple dozen classic rock-n-roll songs including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Walk the Line,” “Who Do You Love” and “Great Balls of Fire,” as well as gospel keystones like “Peace in the Valley’ and ‘I Shall Not Be Moved.”

When a production like this is bringing to the audience a moment in time, I look around a little to see how folks are reacting. I expected this music to resonate with those in the audience who came of age listening to the “devil’s music” of the 1950s, and to those of us who are their children.

I wondered if the younger generations have any idea of the people and history that I take for granted as the bedrock of what is know as rock today. I saw a man in his 60s about to jump over the balcony with excitement, and many seniors bopping their heads and bouncing their shoulders or feet along to the music.

Then, I saw a young girl be-bopping joyfully, as well.

At intermission, I spoke with a woman who was already enthralled, “I’m with my 12-year-old son, he loves to sing. I hope he’s inspired,” she said.

Right then I knew my favorite part already. “Million Dollar Quartet,” like “Always, Patsy Cline” allows older generations to relive a moment in time, while giving upcoming generations to immerse in it.

To be infused with a sense of the history of how radical it was for these performers to be their unique selves and change the face of music. To taste of what is was to experience these raw talents and magnetic personalities. Farm boys who timidly walked into a little studio in Memphis with a dream, and walked out as icons.

“Million Dollar Quartet” runs through June 23 and MSMT has added two matinées to accommodate interest. Tickets are available at www.msmt.org, by calling 725-8769, or in person by visiting the Box Office located at in the Pickard Theater at 1 Bath Road. Visit www.msmt.org for more information.

Tamara Lilly is a Woolwich native with 30-plus years as performer, tech, producer, director, teacher, board member and staff at community theaters in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Maine. Find the Stage Door Diva Podcast on iTunes or stagedoordiva.com. Tamara can be reached at:
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