On Dec. 4, 1956, the tiny Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, was the site of a seminal moment in the history of rock ‘n’ roll: the recording of a jam session between rockabilly superstars Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. This recording session became known as the “Million Dollar Quartet,” catching all four artists at a crucial time when rock music was just starting to take America by storm.
In 2006, a fictionalized version of that remarkable moment was turned into a jukebox musical by writer/director Floyd Mutrux, along with co-writer Colin Escott. Combining the music of the four artists, along with covers of a few other rock hits and some of the gospel music that was actually recorded that day, “Million Dollar Quartet” is as much a musical revue as it is a play.
The show’s music is almost entirely diegetic, coming from the performers on stage re-creating the recording session, and thus all four actors portraying the famous musicians need to be able to embody the roles sonically as well as physically. Fortunately, Zach Theatre’s new production features four leading men who are more than up to the task.
Rockabilly songwriter and recording artist Cole (who goes by just one name) is spot-on as a young, suave, top-of-his-career Elvis, whose bombastic physicality while performing is nicely offset by Cole’s subtle evocation of the King’s nervous stutter in conversation. Gavin Rohrer is a ball of manic energy as Lewis, riding the line between “bad boy” and “snot-nosed punk” while remaining just on the right side of likable. Corbin Mayer’s deep bass voice and quiet brooding, paired with a razor-sharp performing style, evoke the darker tones of Cash. Finally, the young Billy Cohen takes on Perkins’ cool stability and mean rhythm and blues guitar licks with a soulful energy that pairs well with the extravagant, impressive bass-playing of Adam Egizi as Brother Jay, Perkins’ brother and musical partner.
The cast is rounded out by Zachary Yanez as drummer Fluke, Emily Farr as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne (replacing his real-life girlfriend of the time, Marilyn Evans), and Jeff Jeffers as Sam Phillips, Sun Records’ owner and the producer of early recordings by all four men. Farr is buoyant and sexy in the few numbers given to her to sing, though she is somewhat hobbled by a text that mostly seems to have use for her as a plot contrivance for the sake of exposition.
Jeffers, however, has far more to work with, as Phillips is arguably the protagonist of the show’s sparse storyline. Given several moments to shine, he quietly serves as the play’s backbone, with a reserved performance that brings some heart to what would otherwise be a disconnected collection of songs. Director Dave Steakley wisely keeps him at the center of the action in order to hold the story together, even though his role is far less showy than that of the four rock superstars.
As a text, “Million Dollar Quartet” is very flawed. It has sparse narrative momentum and even less structure, and in its celebration of these four particular musicians it pays extremely short shrift to the role of African-American musicians in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. However, Zach’s production of the show uses Jeffers’ willfully modest performance to tie together a series of knockout impersonations, high-energy performances and dynamite rockabilly songs to create a fun evening of toe-tapping, hand-clapping entertainment.
“Million Dollar Quartet”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 3
Where: Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Information: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org