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Theater review: 'Million Dollar Quartet' plays it fast and loose

The musical's thin fictionalized take on the actual meeting of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins is saved by the songs and performances.

April 26, 2012|By Chris Willman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye, left), Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris), Jay Perkins (Chuck Zayas), Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling) and Elvis Presley (Cody Slaughter) jam onstage in "Million Dollar Quartet."
Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye, left), Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris), Jay Perkins… (Jeremy Daniel / Segerstrom…)

You'd be hard-pressed to find a musical with less dramatic tension than "Million Dollar Quartet" anywhere this side of a "My Little Pony" touring show. The production that opened Tuesday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts really just wants to let the good times roll, so you can be glad it devotes only about 10 minutes of its 105-minute running time to drumming up token conflicts between Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and their visionary producer, Sam Phillips.

Will Perkins forgive Presley for having a bigger hit than he did with "Blue Suede Shoes"? Will Cash tell Phillips that he's leaving Sun Records and has signed a contract with Columbia? Will Phillips quit his own indie label to work for RCA — which demands an answer that very night? Will more than a few rock buffs know or care that these uninvolving kerfuffles aren't even historically accurate?

There are more important questions that bear addressing, frankly. Can Martin Kaye, who plays Jerry Lee, play the piano backward and easily kick his right leg up onto the keyboard? (Yes.) Will Derek Keeling, as Cash, hit the lowest notes known to baritone man? (Yes.) Will Lee Ferris be sexier than the real Carl Perkins? (Yes.) And will Cody Slaughter, as the Pelvis, swivel, pivot and knock his everlastingly sexy knees till the cows come home? (Triple-yes.)

Sticklers for the "book" part of book musicals will be dismayed at how thin "Million Dollar Quartet" is, as will some students of rock history. But it's a jukebox musical that remembers to keep plugging in quarters, and Chuck Mead's terrific arrangements put serious turbo power in this particular Wurlitzer. With cast members doing their own well-studied, better-amplified singing and playing, it's difficult to imagine anyone except rock-knocker Steve Allen walking away from the show not wanting to spread the word that the Sun Records class of 1956 was, in fact, the Greatest Generation.

The four stars' meet-up at Sun's Memphis studio on Dec. 4, 1956 really did happen — as the show eagerly reminds us at the opening and close. In reality, they mostly crooned gospel and country songs around a piano. (Cash isn't even audible on the album eventually released of the crude sessions.) In the stage fiction, naturally, they all get around to go-cat-go rave-ups of their greatest mid-'50s hits.

The book's co-writer, Colin Escott, is an esteemed authority on these matters, yet even he has succumbed to the pressure to make "Million Dollar Quartet" a tribute-concert-times-four, instead of any kind of faithful take on what really went down that day. And can you blame him? Would you rather hear these legends rock out on "Great Balls of Fire" or the historically accurate "Blessed Jesus (Take My Hand)"? Thought so.

Slaughter is the only cast member committed to doing a dead-on impression — hard to avoid with Elvis, and even harder when he comes not from the theater but direct from being named the Ultimate Tribute Artist of 2011 by the Presley estate. He's as mesmerizing as required, even if the part mostly requires his knees, heels, hips, lacquered hair and upper lip to do most of the acting.

As Perkins, the least flamboyant of the foursome, Ferris does the best job of getting close but not too close to the source. Keeling wins audience applause more than once for sustaining Cash's familiar low notes, but it's hard to escape the feeling the actor's able impression is outside his natural vocal range. The showiest role belongs to Kaye, who nails Lewis' elegantly feral piano pounding. But he's been encouraged to play the Killer as a cocksure buffoon, and Jerry Lee deserves better than being typed as the Zach Galifianakis of this bunch.

Don't look for too much era-ending bittersweetness, because the show closes with Phillips assuring us that everyone's careers went just fine after that fateful occasion. Then follows a 15-minute concert encore — à la "Mamma Mia" — that encourages everyone to shake it, baby, shake it. A costume rack of Vegas jackets descends from heaven for the quartet to put on over their Memphis duds, and the show suddenly gets honest with itself, even as it stays as loud and fun.

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"Million Dollar Quartet." Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 6; $20 to $82.50; (714) 556-2787 or SCFTA.org

Next: Pantages Theatre, Hollywood, June 19 through July 1

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