Million Dollar Quartet, Philadelphia (national tour)

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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‘Million Dollar Quartet’

Written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Forrest Theatre, Philadelphia (part of the national tour)

Dec. 11-16, 2012

A whole lotta shakin’ going on at the Forrest Theatre with the first national tour of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the musical recreating that legendary night in Memphis when record producer Sam Phillips assembled the rockabilly fab four—Carl, Johnny, Jerry Lee and Elvis, for one last session in 1956 at Sun Records.

By then Presley was already a made-over Hollywood commodity, Perkins was having a string of bad luck and pissed off at Phillips for letting Elvis cash in on his composition “Blue Suede Shoes”; Cash was about to drop his Sun contract for a more lucrative one at Columbia Records; and Jerry Lee was about to blaze across the land like great balls of fire. Narrating the action is the silky/sulky Phillips, played with considerable charm by Vince Nappo.

Even with this great premise, “MDQ” runs the risk of being merely a jukebox musical or claustrophobic bio-history. Maybe there is some canned dialogue along the way, but co-authors Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux make smart choices, aided by Eric Schaeffer’s fast paced direction with this band of fine actor-musicians.

The arrangements by Chuck Mead are no less than brilliant and not Broadway stylized. Many, particularly the Perkins’ songs, have dirt-roadhouse, bourbon-soaked, rockabilly stink on them, and this is one of the huge achievements in itself. Robert Britton Lyons’ volcanic performance as Perkins, by now the least known of the legends, is in fact the most dimensional. When he tells Phillips that he is leaving Sun too, he bares his soul, hating himself for any inference of betrayal.

David Elkins, as Cash, is a better singer than actor (he has moments of skittishness in the dialogue) and his voice is a much stronger instrument than Cash’s, but boy does he convey the essence of what the man in black did musically. Elkins floats the oceanic depths vocally on “Sixteen Tons” and is the country- blues cowboy on “Riders in the Sky” both transporting aural and visual imagery.

Martin Kaye keeps amping the exposed live wire that is Jerry Lee Lewis and is so dynamic in the part that it is hard to take your eyes off him. He pounds, mounts, caresses, and otherwise has his way with it and us. He smartly doesn’t try to sound exactly like Lewis, but he definitely channels his musical aura and expertise. One gripe is that “Great Balls of Fire” is not played through, but broken for dialogue.

Cody Slaughter has some killer looks as Elvis in his prime with a mile-high onyx pompadour and Sunday-school swagger, and the director lets his voice be off, which is an interesting element, but needs to be more Elvis in key moments. Meanwhile, Slaughter has all the gyrations and bounce and bod of the young Presley. Kelly Lamont has some very heavy lifting to do as Dyanne, the girlfriend-chanteuse. The part is sketchy and almost a distraction, especially when she is vamping in “Fever” like a Broadway belter.

The fantasy finale, concretizing what could have been had the four performed together, is over the top, and though it shamelessly gets the audience on its feet, who cares because there are built-in encores. The wonderfully authentic set design is by Derek McLane, with grilled microphones, reel-to-reel tapes and period mixers the metal vaulted ceiling crown on leather-seat walls of the studio. Jane Greenwood’s costume design is under-duded vintage couture.

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