Few jukebox musicals succeed like "The Million Dollar Quartet," which is lighting up the State Theatre in Minneapolis with some classic rock 'n' roll.
A show about a legendary jam session at Sun Records studio in Memphis, featuring young rockers Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, "Quartet" evokes the energy of that night on Dec. 4, 1956, as captured in recordings.
This boomer musical, based on a concept by director and writer Floyd Mutrux, who co-wrote the book with Colin Escott, delivers its own heat, with the singing actors also proving themselves as excellent instrumentalists. They are the band, and they play hard-driving, in-the-moment renditions of such songs as "My Babe," "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Great Balls of Fire." It was enough to cause more than a few goosebumps.
Patrons at Tuesday night's opening performance got a special treat when W.S. "Fluke" Holland, who was Johnny Cash's longtime drummer and one of only two people still alive who were present at the historic session, got up to play drums for an encore rendition of "Matchbox." The cool, snowy-haired old man has still got it.
Going into "Quartet," I wondered if I was going to a cheesy karaoke show. Most of its numbers -- including "Hound Dog" and "I Walk the Line" --are well-known staples of oldies stations.
The casts for shows like this usually mime the mannerisms of the acts that they portray. The actors who play Cash (understated Derek Keeling), Perkins (hot and cocky Lee Ferris), Lewis (righteous, holy-rolling Martin Kaye) and Presley (smooth Cody Slaughter) dress, look and speak like their characters. But they are also top-flight musicians who infuse this well-designed, crisp-sounding show with the spirit of a concert. It might still be a nostalgia trip for a demographic that shouldn't try to swivel like Elvis the Pelvis anymore, but it's one with a lot of juice.
While the music is terrific, the otherwise taut and exciting show goes slack when the songs gave way to dialogue. The book writers have padded the story of a great, impromptu concert with dramatic filler.
Studio owner Sam Phillips (Big Daddy-like Christopher Ryan Grant) is weighing a buy-out offer from RCA. He might be wise to take it, since both Cash and Perkins are set to leave his label. The overwhelming egos and testosterone of "Quartet" are leavened by the presence of Dyanne (Marilyn Monroe-esque Kelly Lamont), Presley's "Fever"-singing girlfriend.
These big-ego characters have good chemistry onstage, especially in their playing. The tensions that suffuse the room as the egos compete and occasionally clash often feel real in a show that transports us to a moment and a place where some great artists poured out their fiery souls.