Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
For the next two weeks at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, audiences will be wildly applauding and standing in approval at the end of Million Dollar Quartet. After all, the national tour of this Broadway musical offers high-energy, iconic real-life characters, and some of the greatest songs from the early days of rock-n-roll. Combine that nostalgia with excellent performances and it's no surprise that theatergoers love this show despite its weaknesses.
Million Dollar Quartet chronicles a real-life event which took place at the small recording studio at Sun Records in Memphis on December 4, 1956. Sun Records owner Sam Phillips had the good luck of having four of his young artists at the studio at the same time, and he recorded their jam session. The fact that those four performers were Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley is what made this event historically noteworthy.
The book for the show by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux is weak by Broadway standards. Much of the story is told to us by Sam Phillips, breaking the fourth wall with narration and comments to provide backstory, which is a lazy way of presenting the material. Much of the dialogue between characters that does exist feels contrived. Even worse, they have Phillips prodding the audience for applause after certain numbers. Still, the book does what it needs to, which is to provide the minimal framework for knowing the situation that brought these future legends together, filling in the gaps about the man behind their budding careers, and allowing for the classic rock, rhythm and blues, and old time spirituals to be performed. Songs such as "Blue Suede Shoes," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Down By The Riverside," "Sixteen Tons," "Great Balls of Fire," "Hound Dog" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" are just a sampling of the well-known hits that are heard, and are the main attraction.
Finding singers to convincingly mimic these musical icons without seeming like cheesy impersonators is difficult in itself, but finding ones who can also act and play their instruments skillfully is even harder. Thankfully, the touring cast of the show is first rate on all accounts. Vince Nappo has the largest role as Sun owner Sam Phillips, and provides a detailed portrayal and a commanding stage presence. As Jerry Lee Lewis, Ben Goddard magnificently captures the legend's eccentric showmanship and quirky personality, and plays one mean piano as well, in the style of Lewis. David Elkins is a perfect vocal match as Johnny Cash, providing excellent deep bass/baritone singing, and conveying the quiet dignity of the singer well. Cody Slaughter is an award-winning Elvis impersonator, but supplies a controlled, authentic take on the superstar which differs greatly from the over-the-top presentation so often seen from other imitators. James Barry demonstrates outstanding musicianship on guitar as Carl Perkins, and gives the least well known of the foursome a nuanced portrayal. Also on hand are Kelly Lamont, who impresses singing a couple of numbers including a sultry "Fever" as Elvis's girlfriend Dyanne, and Billy Shaffer (Fluke, Drums) and Corey Kaiser (Jay Perkins, Bass) providing professional musical accompaniment and fine characterizations.
Director Eric Schaeffer provides a suitably quick pace and flow for the piece, and emphasizes the humor, conflict and relationships as much as possible given the material. The set design by Derek McLane nicely replicates the inside of a small 1950s recording studio, which is otherwise framed by distressed brick walls with painted advertisements to capture '50s Memphis. The costumes by Jane Greenwood are attractive and appropriate to the characters. Howell Binkley's lighting varies effectively between the recording studio atmosphere and concert style performance effects during some songs.
Million Dollar Quartet isn't complicated or thought provoking, and is pretty thin on plot and characterization. However, none of that matters. Baby boomers, who make up the bulk of theatergoers these days, love the songs and the performers, and the story, music and performers of the period are showcased in a fun, entertaining, and brisk package which is an audience pleaser to say the least. The immensely talented cast is a huge asset as well in making this show a success.
Million Dollar Quartet continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through March 3, 2013. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. For more information on the tour, please visit www.milliondollarquartetlive.com/tour.html.-- Scott Cain