It was a gathering of titans in a surprisingly humble place.
Million Dollar Quartet, the jukebox musical that opened at Casa Mañana on Saturday, celebrates the mostly chance meeting of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins on Dec. 4, 1956, in the cozy, cluttered confines of Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn. At the time, all four were either currently or formerly signed to the record label of that same name, run by founder Sam Phillips.
The first thing to know about this show is that it is all about having a good time, not relating facts. The actual meeting was not nearly so tuneful as this show would suggest, and the show’s singing legends are presented as just that, not necessarily like they really were.
But there are few shows that define the concept of the jukebox musical as clearly as this one. It strings together one early rock ’n’ roll classic after another without letting its unifying elements (some fabricated drama about the artists’ contracts and Phillips’ dealings with Presley’s new label, RCA) get in the way too much. It is as much fun as a sock hop — and if you know what that is, you are part of this show’s target audience.
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This production, directed by Hunter Foster, is highly polished and well-mounted. Josh Smith’s set recalls the real thing and Tammy Spencer’s costuming carries the period well. The performances, on the whole, offer few “wow” moments, but the cast is solid and well-balanced.
John Michael Presney plays guitar exceptionally well as Blue Suede Shoes composer Carl Perkins. Christopher Damiano, clad all in black, of course, is an earnest Johnny Cash. Sean McGibbon makes his Jerry Lee Lewis seem like a sort of maniacal Harpo Marx, which may not be too far off the mark.
The only slight disappointment is Trent Rowland’s bland reading of The King. He has a fine voice, but you never think about Presley when you see or hear him.
So do not expect impersonations. The principals seldom sound that much like their subjects. Damiano got a strong response from the opening-night audience for his spot-on rendition of Cash’s I Walk the Line. But most of the other performances are just reasonable facsimiles, and a few, such as Rowland’s take on Hound Dog, miss the boat entirely.
While the quartet comprises out-of-market performers brought in for the task (including two who were part of the show’s national touring company), there are a couple of local actors who add a lot to the proceedings. Bob Hess brings a strong dose of energy and bluster to his portrayal of Phillips. It may not be historically accurate, but it does hold the show together well. Alyssa Gardner, rocking a glittering, retro look (kudos to Catherine Petty-Rogers, who did the hair, wigs and makeup) as Presley’s girlfriend, Dyanne, provides a badly needed female presence, and stops the show with a torrid reading of the sultry classic Fever.
The criticisms that can be leveled at this production are that it is a slight show to start with, and the total of this presentation is not a bit greater than the sum of its parts. Otherwise, you know exactly what you are getting into with this musical, which enjoyed a 14-month run on Broadway in 2010-11.
If you love this era of music, a lot of your favorites are to be found here. The performers play as well as they sing. The best part of the show is the final few numbers, where the cast really joins forces as a band and produces the kind of sparks too often missing in the rest of the show.