Let's face it. As entertaining as many of them are, most so-called "jukebox musicals"—those easily-cobbled together musical Theater Productions that mold weak narratives around a collection of previously-released music that share a common trait—exist at all only because of their familiar tunes and their ability to bring an established audience willing to fork over their hard-earned dough for a trip down nostalgia lane.
While some are less successful than others, more often than not, the really good ones tend to be labeled as such simply because they contain great music. So incredible is this music catalog that even having a weak plot stringing these songs together tends to be summarily forgiven.
Such is the case for the Tony Award-nominated Broadway hit MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, a genuinely enjoyable, musically-rich stage show that's high on marquee value but, as expected, quite lacking when it comes to having a viable story—even as fantastically true to life as it is. More a rousing old-school 50s-era rock-and-country concert than actual musical theater, the national tour is now stopped at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County, CA through May 6. (The show will also play the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood for a two-week run starting June 19).
On paper, constructing a musical out of a once-in-a-lifetime true-life event involving four of the biggest names in rock-and-roll history in the same room seems absolutely brilliant. Inspired by the infamous event that took place on December 4, 1956 in Memphis, Tennessee, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET takes many understandable liberties in fashioning a show about a furtuitous jam-session that brought icons Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris), Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling), Elvis Presley (Cody Slaughter) and a still young Jerry Lee Lewis (funny, scenery chewing Martin Kaye) all together at the recording studio of Sun Records, run by talent magnet impresario Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant).
Each accepting an invitation from Phillips to casually "drop by," the rocking foursome—so dubbed because, together, they could easily sell a million dollars' worth of records instantly—answer the call to not only pay their respects to the man that discovered and nurtured them, but to also take care of a bit of industry business. Each musical genius has arrived with a set agenda for being at Phillips' home turf.
For Perkins, his already-planned recording session is a desperate attempt at conjuring up his next hit; for the ultra-manic Lewis, it's a golden opportunity to contribute—and show off—his own brand of wild musicality to the music vets visiting; for Presley, it's his chance to rekindle his early studio days while convincing his mentor in person to ditch Sun Records to work with him at RCA; and for Cash, the impromptu visit is a means to deliver some unfortunate news—that he has already decided to jump ship to Columbia Records once his contract with Phillips and Sun Records expires.
Also on hand to provide additional musical accompaniment are Perkin's brother Jay (Chuck Zayas) on upright bass and session drummer Fluke (Billy Shaffer). There's even a fifth singer thrown into the mix: Elvis' classy female companion, Dyanne, played by velvet-voiced bombshell Kelly Lamont, providing a welcome shot of estrogen to the male-dominated drama (Dyanne's real-life historical counterpart was actually a dancer; but in this story, she's an up-and-coming actress that happens to have a gorgeous, studio-ready voice—which, of course, is a better fit for this stage musical).
But, really, when you get down to the true machinations of it all, the wobbly, almost forgettable narrative here is, honestly, just a good excuse to showcase the talents of each of the four legends (and one very awesome lady) and for each to take turns singing their own well-known tunes. So in between some good-natured alpha-male posturing and even a few flashbacks of early meetings—mostly told via heavily Southern-accented first-person monologues from Phillips—MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET more than anything assembles some truly rousing musical numbers, with every actor on stage playing their own instruments live! The resulting solos, duets, and ensembles alone are worthy of your attention.
Perhaps the show's shrewdest move of all, spearheaded by writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, is allowing the leeway of having each superstar sing a few of their greatest hits throughout the show that many will find instantly familiar. A hodge-podge of rock, country, blues and, yes, even a bit of gospel, the quartet (and the lovely Ms. Dyanne) take turns in a songbook that includes "Blue Suede Shoes" (a big hit for Presley, written by Perkins), "Who Do You Love," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Hound Dog," "Great Balls of Fire," "I Walk The Line," and even "Down by the Riverside." Every number, by the way, is simply outstanding—and credit not only goes to Chuck Mead for his wonderful orchestrations, but also this ensemble cast.
And, goodness gracious, great balls of talent... are these folks incredible! These actors are not only truly excellent impersonators—all achieving a balanced hybrid between homage and caricature—but they're also gifted musicians.