Broadway’s 2010 jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet” depicts the real-life meeting of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins at Sun Records studio in 1956. The show’s thin script makes it essentially a golden oldies concert, but in the hands of Theatre Raleigh’s talented actor-musicians, it’s easy to forget any weaknesses and enjoy the high-energy production.
On that day in Memphis, producer Sam Phillips was overseeing a recording session for Perkins, adding in brash newcomer Lewis. When Presley stopped by, Phillips called in Cash for a once-in-a-lifetime impromptu jam session. In the show’s version, co-authors Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have gathered each performer’s most popular songs, linking them with short biographical bits in a 105-minute one-act.
Although the script gets better near the end, when Phillips deals with Cash and Perkins’ defection to Columbia Records, much of the dialogue consists of “why don’t you sing my favorite” and “play something that will be the next hit.” Luckily, the cast delivers foot-stomping, hand-clapping renditions of these favorites, along with strong characterizations that aren’t just imitations.
Ian Fairlee charms as cocky, flamboyant Lewis, his all-out vocals and extravagant piano playing making “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” wildly entertaining. Ted Bushman’s confident, calm Cash adds appreciable balance, his rich baritone easily filling out “I Walk the Line” and “Ghost Riders.” Joe Boover plays up Presley’s shy warmth but lets it rip in “That’s Alright Mama” and “Long Tall Sally.” Although Michael Kennedy’s Perkins seems a more modern day characterization, his electric guitar licks and strong vocals impress in “My Babe” and “Let’s Have a Party.”
David McClutchey as Phillips is overly brash and strident at first, but he shows his acting chops as he comes to terms with big changes in his business. Taylor Kraft turns the rather thankless part of Presley’s fictionalized girlfriend Dyanne into a scene-stealer, sensuously belting “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.” Music director Jon Rossi joyfully attacks his drum set, aided by Jason William Steffen’s hilarious antics with his bass.
Director Tim Seib keeps the pace hopping and the staging natural. Chris Bernier’s recording studio set feels real, as does LeGrande Smith’s 1950s costume design. David Castaneda’s lighting helps tell the story and adds fireworks to the glittering curtain call numbers.
What: “Million Dollar Quartet,” presented by Theatre Raleigh
Where: Kennedy Theatre, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday, Aug. 24-27; 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27; 3 p.m. Aug. 21, 28
Tickets: $33.50 (seniors $30.50)
Info: 919-832-9997 or theatreraleigh.com