by Rebecca Rudnyk
Million Dollar Quartet is a jukebox musical based around an unplanned 1956 jam session between Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. They converge at Sun Studios in Memphis for different reasons, and the result is rock and roll history. It is ultimately Sam Philip’s story. The record producer who discovered them serves as the imperative narrator who ties the unwoven pieces together.
I must admit from the outset that I am inherently skeptical of jukebox musicals. I set the bar slightly higher. Because there is something magical about building a story, book and musical, from scratch. Jukeboxes, wherein the story is built around already-existing songs, can feel formulaic and uninspired if not done with tremendous creativity. Like forcing square blocks into round holes, leaving spaces between the edges and the circumference. Small gaps in the full picture. Million Dollar Quartet is no exception.
This show feels like eavesdropping, as a fly on the wall during an epic moment in music lore. The book is a tool. A history lesson to bring all into understanding of who the characters are and why they matter, rather than crucial story development. The experience is intense and visceral. Exciting and powerful. But it is in the vein of seeing master impersonators at the top of their game. Profoundly impressive professionals enlivening the forum, but not a musical in the traditional sense.
Several of the performers have played in this show many times, developing, honing and perfecting these roles. And it shows. Skye Scott plays Carl Perkins, the father of rockabilly. Skye’s portrayal is one of a jaded young man whose star is dimming. A masterful guitar player with a chip on his shoulder. Kavan Hashimian plays Elvis Presley, a role he has taken on since his early childhood. Hashimian embodies all the mannerisms and the voice of the man, the legend, the king. Gregg Hammer is stunning as Johnny Cash, hitting all those insanely low notes with ease. Charismatic and charming, exuding masculine energy. And Chris Lash steals the show as a young and yet undiscovered Jerry Lee Lewis. Pounding on the keys with precision and intense kinetic energy. Lash is an absolute joy to watch. Funny and exuberant, with jaw-dropping piano skills.
Million Dollar Quartet plays well for the demographic of people who grew up listening to these artists. Those who have nostalgia for the songs, and will find themselves blown away be seeing incredible musicians play them live. What it lacks in narrative it makes up for in pep and energy. For those wanting the experience of seeing a Broadway musical, with a fully developed story arch and some form of catharsis by its conclusion, this may not quite scratch the itch. But for anyone wanting to experience a rock concert with impressive musicians portraying icons, it surely delivers.
Million Dollar Quartet is playing in The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Hormel Theatre until February 16. The Hormel is an intimate black box theatre, which allows for the music to completely fill the space, and there is not really a bad seat in the house. Tickets are available online. A quick search made it clear that tickets are selling fast, with better availability later in the run.