Thursday, January 10, 2013

Theater Review: Million Dollar Quartet -- The Bushnell

The Natinal Tour of Million Dollar Quartet. Photo: Photo: Jeremy Daniel
It’s Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins Jammin' Live – Or Pretty Close
By Lauren Yarger
It’s 1956 and Carl Perkins (Connecticut native James Barry) is trying to record “Matchbox,” the song he hopes will put him back at the top of the charts. Providing some distraction during the recording session (and adding to the music), however, are showoff Jerry Lee Lewis (Benjamin Goddard) and legends Johnny Cash (David Elkins) and Elvis Presley (Billy Woodward).

Such is the setting for Million Dollar Quartet, the 2010 Tony-Award-nominated musical based on a real-life meeting of the four legends in the Memphis storefront studio of Sun Records on Dec. 4, 1956. It makes a tour stop at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford through Jan. 13.

Conceived, and originally directed by Floyd Mutrux, the musical offers a minimal book by Colin Escott and Mutrux around the events of that evening, with history interspersed with tunes. It’s really about getting to hear the music, though. More than 20 songs cram in a brisk 90-minute format without intermission.

“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Fever,” “Down By the Riverside,” “Hound Dog,” and “Great Balls of Fire” have the audience bopping and foot-tapping. The actors play their own instruments and are assisted by backup band members Corey Kaiser and Billy Shaffer on bass and drums. Also adding some variety is Kelly Lamont as Dyanne, a singer Elvis has brought along with him on his way to introduce her to his mother.

The four recording artists have been brought together by Sam Phillips (Vince Nappo), the “Father of Rock and Roll,” who hopes to sign Johnny to a new three-year contract. What he doesn’t know is that the country music star already has signed with another label, and so has Perkins, tired of being neglected in favor of the newest music sensation Phillips discovers (and it looks like cocky Jerry Lee is the heir apparent to that title).

Fans of the music will enjoy the entertainment, but don’t look for impersonations. Elkins sounds a lot like Cash, but the others don’t sound or look like the legends they portray (and those dazzled by B-roll video of Tony-Award winner Levi Kreis’ acrobatic piano acumen as Broadway’s Jerry Lee Lewis shouldn’t expect the same here, though Goddard performs the songs well enough.) Sound (Kai Harada, design) is a problem: It’s difficult to hear/understand Goddard and there’s too much electric guitar and too little piano in the mix).

One nice surprise is Nappo’s portrayal of Phillips. Directed here by Eric Schaeffer, Nappo manages to take a minor role (he doesn’t sing, so can get lost in all the music) and turn it into a layered portrayal of a man trying to keep his company afloat while fighting feelings of betrayal by the legends who never would have made it to the top without him.

Stick around at the end for a prolonged curtain-call jam session which arguably is the most entertaining part of the evening with its own set (Derek McLane, design) and costume (Jane Greenwood, design) changes.

Million Dollar Quartet plays The Bushnell Through Jan. 13; Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets $20-$65 (860) 860-987-5900;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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