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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Don’t Be Cruel

A PRE-SHOW PROJECTION reminds us that in December 1956, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley joined Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis in the Sun Records recording studio in Memphis, where they jammed for a considerable while while a tape recorder ran. But only the most naive would believe that the show that follows bears much resemblance to what actually took place.

Million Dollar Quartet plus one
Million-Dollar Quartet” is the Hollywood version of the session, what MGM might have given us in its heyday. Turning what was a low-key jam session featuring Presley and Perkins and Lewis into a Grand Ole Opry-worthy concert in which Cash is also featured, along with Elvis’s fictitious girlfriend, a dancer-singer named Dyanne who purrs a sultry “Fever” in an arrangement that uncannily foreshadows Peggy Lee’s version by two years.

(A historical footnote is that, as this show was being developed, the publicity prompted Marilyn Evans to reveal herself as the woman whom Elvis took to the studio that day, and offer her own recollections of the event.)

Only a few numbers overlap between the Broadway show and the original session, most notably Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley.” But here’s where the musical gets it right. While there are significant concerts I’d love to see re-created (Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, the premiere of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony), the original MDQ session is too laid-back and casual to sustain dramatic interest. Plus, the session was pretty much Johnny Cash-free. He was there, all right: he’s in the famous photo. But any music he contributed was too off-mike to be detected.

So for anyone familiar with the original, or with the story of Sun Records and its founder Sam Phillips, there’s cognitive dissonance potential. But here’s why it goes away quickly: this isn’t your ordinary jukebox musical. The titular quartet is portrayed by musicians skilled enough to recreate the playing and singing styles of their characters, working with the backbone of bassist Corey Kaiser and drummer Billy Shaffer.

Ben Goddard has got Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano style down to a fare-thee-well (without actually kicking over any benches), and, when he’s not busy with gliss-intensive showboating and delivering the show’s comedy lines, he, too, is a rhythm-section stalwart. It’s a credit to Goddard as an actor that he can fade into the background when necessary without letting up on the music.

James Barry plays the unlikeable Perkins, but as soon as he tears into “Who Do You Love?” the place is on fire. Vince Nappo, as Phillips, helps by addressing the audience directly and encouraging their applause, but it’s a too-enthusiastic gesture – we don’t need to respond every sixteen bars.

It doesn’t matter that the resemblances aren’t wax-museum ready, although David Elkins recalls Johnny Cash to a scary degree. “Folsom Prison Blues” was released a year before the MDQ session, so it’s historically authentic – and it would be nice to think that if Cash actually had performed it then, it would have sounded just as it does in the show.

Then there’s Elvis. As portrayed by Billy Woodward, he’s a nice a guy who’s dazzled by fame, longs for the old simplicity, but isn’t about to give up his current status. And his presence is very like it is in the original: someone who’s a font of old-timey material and knows a bunch of lyrics to “Down by the Riverside.” He's encouraged by Dyanne (the pleasant, very talented Kelly Lamont), who herself gets another star moment with the lively “I Hear You Knocking.”

The material rolls on, song after well-chosen song. Cash sings “I Walk the Line” and “Sixteen Tons.” Elvis does a spot-on impression of Dean Martin with “Memories Are Made of This.” (In the original session, Elvis did an impression of Jackie Wilson.) We get “Matchbox” and “Long Tall Sally” from Perkins, and Lewis cuts up with “Great Balls of Fire,” of course.

There’s a plot, I’m sorry to say, that has to do with Phillips and contracts and – but this isn’t why you want to see the show, and it’s relatively painless. And when, after a reprise of “Down By the Riverside,” you think it’s all over, think again. We finish with four more numbers from the quartet, this time showcasing each in his solo glory.

Were it a jukebox show with an offstage band, it wouldn’t be a fraction as compelling. We get a full-fledged nostalgia-drenched concert here. The show runs through 27 January.

Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Proctors Theatre, 22 January

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