Performing Arts

The roots of rock and roll are exposed in ‘Million Dollar Quartet’

The “Million Dollar Quartet” cast, from left: Colte Julian as Jerry Lee Lewis; Gabe Bowling as Carl Perkins; Jacob Rowley as Elvis Presley; and Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash.
The “Million Dollar Quartet” cast, from left: Colte Julian as Jerry Lee Lewis; Gabe Bowling as Carl Perkins; Jacob Rowley as Elvis Presley; and Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash. Special to The Star

The 65th season of Broadway productions at Starlight Theatre opened Friday with a “hillbilly homecoming.”

The wildly entertaining “Million Dollar Quartet” captivated an audience of more than 2,000 at the storied outdoor venue.  

A jukebox musical based on a 1956 jam session at the Sun Records studio in Memphis featuring Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, the 90-minute show is surprisingly vital.  

Assuring acting, fleet musicianship and almost two dozen electrifying songs enliven the somewhat unpromising premise.  The fun to be had watching “Million Dollar Quartet” makes the historical inaccuracies that litter its book seem inconsequential.

The minimal plot revolves around the scheming of Sun Records owner Sam Phillips.  The sympathetic raconteur attempts to balance art and commerce with mixed results.

Rather than sounding entirely like “a little red dirt Alabama country boy” in the role of the Phillips, the accent and speech patterns of Bryan Langlitz occasionally resembled W.C. Fields.  

Phillips’ savvy coaching of Presley results in the show’s best moment.  An initially tentative version of “That’s All Right” allows the audience to experience the thrill of discovery at a pivotal juncture in the history of rock and roll.  

The actors’ live instrumentation is the most impressive aspect of the production.  The members of the cast aren’t merely expert revivalists.  Rather than resembling a Broadway musical, the accomplished musicians sounded as if they were playing at a roots-oriented nightclub.

Gabe Bowling stood out in the role of rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins.  His guitar work during a bracing rendition of “Matchbox” was edgy enough to satisfy punk rock fans.  

Scott Moreau wasn’t given much to work with as the stoic Johnny Cash.  He mastered Cash’s speaking voice, but his singing was slightly less accurate.  

Jacob Rowley’s portrayal of Elvis Presley didn’t disappoint.  He possesses the voice, moves and gravity-defying pompadour of the King of Rock and Roll.  

Colte Julian stole the show in the role of Jerry Lee Lewis.  He banged on a piano as if it owed him money and made the most of his many funny lines.  

The set was less remarkable.  The scenery appeared to be designed for much smaller venues.  

As if to make amends to members of the audience who had been expecting a tacky revue,  “Million Dollar Quartet” concludes with a Las Vegas-style romp.  

The gratuitous ending is an abrupt departure from what Perkins’ character suggested was a humble “hillbilly homecoming.”

“Million Dollar Quartet” runs through Sunday (May 24).

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