Performing Arts

Great balls of fire — New Theatre’s ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ strums along splendidly

Elvis Presley (Skye Scott) shows his signature moves as he performs in “Million Dollar Quartet” at New Theatre Restaurant.
Elvis Presley (Skye Scott) shows his signature moves as he performs in “Million Dollar Quartet” at New Theatre Restaurant. New Theatre Restaurant

“Million Dollar Quartet” is less a proper play than a sort of feverish fantasia, a what-if speculation about a pivotal moment of rock ‘n’ roll mythology.

That’s enough for a wildly entertaining evening at the New Theatre Restaurant.

This Broadway musical (the book is by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux) is based on a real nugget of history. In December 1956, four musicians who first found fame with Memphis’ storied Sun Records assembled in the studio for the first and only time.

They constituted a royal family of early rock: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Orchestrating the event was the label’s owner, Sam Phillips, the musical obstetrician who more than any other individual may have been responsible for the birth of rock. Played extremely well by Craig Benton, Phillips is a fiercely independent businessman facing tough choices.

A year earlier, he sold his biggest star, Elvis, to RCA Records; it was the only way to keep Sun afloat. RCA has offered to absorb Phillips into their big operation ... but that means becoming a small cog in a massive machine.

Phillips — who is the show’s narrator — can keep his ship afloat if he can get Perkins and Cash to extend their contracts for a few more years. Problem is, a little operation like Sun can’t match rival Columbia Records in the hard cold cash department.

At least Phillips has a hot newcomer in Lewis, a piano-pounding hellion with an ego as big as his sound.

That’s about it for plot. No matter. “Million Dollar Quartet” works best as an intimate rock concert. We’re eavesdropping on four musical giants getting down in the recording studio, and the results are tuneful, frequently funny and unexpectedly powerful.

The score features signature tunes by each of these heavy hitters (“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog”) as well as a smattering of mid-50s hits by other artists (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Sixteen Tons,” “I Hear You Knocking,” “See You Later Alligator,” “Who Do You Love?”).

The performers evoke their famous characters without actually trying to imitate them — a wise choice ... there can be only one Elvis.

But each nails a particular aspect of his real-life counterpart. Scott Moreau’s Cash excels at Johnny’s gravelly baritone, Skye Scott’s Elvis has that hip-swinging thing down pat, and James Barry’s Perkins is a rockabilly guitar god apparently born with an electric axe in hand. ... He can coax darn near any sound out of those six strings.

The show’s biggest scene-stealer, though, is Dominique Scott’s Jerry Lee Lewis, a flailing dervish with a mad gleam in his eye, baggy maroon trousers and a washrag of blond hair hanging in his face. Scott does stuff with the ivories that would make the real Jerry Lee proud — insane runs up and down the keyboard, chords pounded out with his feet, tunes picked out with his back to the instrument.

These players are backed up by a couple of Sun’s studio musicians, a spectacularly good bassist (Eric Anthony) and a rock-steady drummer (David Sonneborn).

Rounding out the ensemble is Elvis’ current girlfriend, a Hollywood chanteuse (Ashley Pankow) who struts her stuff on a sultry version of Peggy Lee’s “Fever.”

All of this has been seamlessly choreographed by director Joe R. Fox III. And special mention must be made of James Misenheimer’s scenic design, a realistic recreation of the Sun recording studio that, in the show’s final moments, is transformed through Sean Glass’ lighting into a humongous flashing jukebox.

Nothing profound going on here. Just great music performed with terrific energy by a tremendously talented cast.

On stage

“Million Dollar Quartet” continues through Sept. 24 at the New Theatre Restaurant, 9229 Foster in Overland Park. See newtheatre.com or call 913-649-7469.

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