It's fortunate that roof of Mortenson Hall in the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts is so high or else parts of it this week would be strewn along Capitol Avenue or down Washington Street in downtown Hartford.
The national touring company of the Tony-nominated Broadway musical "Million Dollar Quartet" has landed in Hartford this week, and the four amazingly talented actor-musicians channeling Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis certainly do their best to blow the roof off the downtown theater as they recreate the thrill and excitement of a live performance.
That the show is inspired by an actual but little-known occurrence in Memphis shortly before Christmas in 1956 in which Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis all found themselves in an impromptu jam session makes the show all the more interesting. Admittedly the show resembles a jukebox musical in that the audience is treated to a cascade of familiar songs made famous by some of the greatest pioneers of the then-burgeoning rock and roll movement. But Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, the latter credited with the original concept for the show, have built a slight story around this once-in-a-lifetime confluence of four great musicians who unexpectedly found themselves gathered at the headquarters of Sun Records, the Memphis-based company that originally propelled these artists to stardom.
After a rousing rendition of "Blue Suede Shoes" opens the show with all four legends on stage, Vince Nappo as Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, steps to the footlights to begin his tale of how he discovered each artist and how they ended up in his studio on that December evening. Nappo, in the only non-singing, non-instrument playing role of the evening, evinces a man who is in thrall to the music that he champions and whose enthusiasm for this revolutionary expansion of rhythm and blues into popular music provided him with both pride and pain, as his new discoveries would ultimately desert him for more lucrative opportunities.
All of the other performers on stage are required to act, sing and play the instruments that their characters played in real life, not to mention also capture the look, behavior and sound of their real-life counterparts. All this is accomplished to a remarkable degree by the four actors in the lead roles--quite an achievement for a touring production. These performers are not necessarily offering exact imitations, they are using their voices, bodily movements, and performance styles to convey the essence of each iconic musician. One does not really realize how close they have come to capturing their characters until a photograph from the actual jam session comes down from the flies and the audience sees just how much resemblance has been achieved.
And if one has any doubts as to whether or not any of these events actually occurred, a creaky tape from that session nearly 60 years ago reassures that what we've seen and heard on stage very closely resembles those events from long-ago Memphis.
After the opening number, the book cleverly introduces each of the musicians as they arrive at Phillips' legendary one-room studio. We first meet the 19-year old Jerry Lee Lewis of actor Benjamin Goddard, who starred in the London production of this show and who appears here courtesy of American Equity. Goddard captures all of the audacity and pride of this out-of-control Louisiana youngster, already on his second-wife while inconveniently still married to his first. It's a daredevil, outrageous performance that threatens to go overboard, but that was Lewis in nearly all of his on-stage or televised performances. Goddard zips his hands up and down his piano's keyboard with Lewis-like frenzy, while jumping over and around the instrument, frequently treating it like a pummel horse in a gymnastics exhibition. His captures nearly all of Lewis's trademarked moves, including feet that rise straight in the air or out over the piano while frantically belting out the words to "Great Balls of Fire." Plus, Goddard also conveys just how annoying and exasperating Lewis was in real life.
James Barry, a local Connecticut boy who trained at the University of Connecticut, captures the musicality of Carl Perkins, while conveying the disappointments of fate that will prevent him from becoming the superstar and household name of his colleagues. Barry's Perkins is a calm, collected, and thoughtful man, lacking the flamboyance of those around him, but clearly possessing the musical chops that qualify him to be a great songwriter and memorable performer. After all, he's the one who wrote and first recorded "Blue Suede Shoes," only to see it swiped from right under him and become forever associated with Elvis Presley.
Billy Woodward plays the King as a wonder struck youth just getting used to his superstar popularity while trying to hang on to his more humble roots. Woodward portrays the young singer's feelings of loyalty and obligation to the man responsible for his original success, balanced against the growing acclaim and opportunities presented to him that are clearly beyond his early dreams. Woodward is somewhat subdued in Presley's singing, saving his famous hip swinging and guitar lifting for a few selected numbers in the show--echoing the performer's essential humility that he tried to maintain throughout his life. Mutrux and Escott include a particularly funny moment as Presley tells the guys of his humiliation in opening for Shecky Greene in Las Vegas before an audience that refused to applaud for him. "I'm never going back to play in Vegas," he asserts to knowing laughter from the audience.
A black-clad David Elkins does a fine job capturing the demeanor and subtle appeal of the young Johnny Cash, complete with the appropriate vocal inflections and reticent confidence. There's something unsettled and "in a hurry" conveyed in Elkins' acting that indicates the man in black's discomfort and impatience with his current place in his career. He's just recorded "Folsom Prison Blues," which Elkins performs to great effect, and is still married to his first wife, and one can just feel his desire to break out and take his talent to the next level.
The lovely Kelly Lamont has the somewhat thankless role as Elvis's girlfriend of the moment, an aspiring singer named Dyann, who inserts some feminine presence into the proceedings and most particularly into the vocals throughout the evening. She even gets two solos during the show, a sultry version of "Fever" and a fevered version of "I Hear You Knocking" to add a little bit of diversity into the evening. The tall beanpole Corey Kaiser plays Carl's brother, Jay Perkins, who does things with his bass that may surprise even the most sophisticated music lovers, while Billy Shaffer on drums provides the necessary percussive counterpoint.
Derek McLane has recreated the Sun studio efficiently, though one doubts that the original was quite so large or looked so organized. It turns out to be quite a flexible set in order to accommodate an ideal version of what a genuine concert by these four greats would really be like, complete with a large bank of backlights that showcase these stars in the manner they will ultimately deserve. Howell Binkley bathes the studio in multiple shades of red that can spotlight a particular artist as needed, while brightening the "dream concert" to delightful effect. Jane Greenwood's costumes demonstrate the early roots of the performers' later outfits and styles, while grounding the other characters in the suitable styles of the 50's. Kai Harada's sound is appropriately loud yet clear. You wouldn't want anything less from such a show.
As directed by Eric Shaeffer, a Washington, D.C.-based director with a special affinity for musical theater has succeeded in creating a crowd-pleasing, entertaining dreadnought of a musical that makes up for what it lacks in substance with an evening of irresistible rock 'n roll performed by actor-musicians who know to bring a house down.