Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Million Dollar Quartet
Also see Eddie's review of In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
What we are about to see is a staged reenactment of an impromptu jam session like no othera true event in rock-and-roll history when Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis all stopped by Sun Studios on the same night: December 4, 1956. A local newspaper reporter got a tip about the gathering and tagged the one-time foursome group the Million Dollar Quartet. In 2010, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux's musical by the same name opened on Broadway. Million Dollar Quartet now finds its way to the Palo Alto Players stage, featuring two dozen songs guaranteed to ensure audience toe taps, head bops, and hand claps as they revel in the much-familiar beats and rhythms.
Meeting up in the humble Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, these future music legends all owed their discoveries and initial mentoring to one man, Sam Phillips, founder of the Sun. He, Presley, and Lewis would later become Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's initial inductees, followed quickly by the other two. Sam (Jeremy Ryan) is the narrator of the concert as in his Southern, good ol' boy drawl he introduces the context of the night and one by one the players and how he discovered them.
There is a slim storyline linking the many musical numbers. It turns out that not only was this a seminal evening in rock history as all four of these legends gave this one-time, private concert to each other and to Sam, but it was also a turning point evening for Sun Studios and the contracts the record producer held (or hoped to hold) with each. However, the musical's book of these events by Messieurs Escott and Mutrux takes a back seat to the music. In fact, the writers' decision to have Sam interact with the audience is a bit hokey and mundane much of the time, while some of the dialogue among the main characters is equally ho-hum and full of clique-like lines. But who cares? We all know why this musical continues to fill regional theatres with audiences who rabidly cheer. The music that many of us grew up listening to (and still listen to) is the heralded star of this show.
The four actors playing the luminaries sing in voices at least somewhat familiar to the ones we remember, speak in the local dialects of places like Mississippi and Louisiana, and swivel hips and knees in just the ways we expect. But the most impressive aspect of their performances is that they each play their rock giant's hallmark instrument with flair, confidence, and musical skill.
This is especially true for Nick Kenrick, who tears up the keyboard of his piano as the wet-behind-his-ears, much-too-cocky, and immediately likeable Jerry Lee Lewis. Able both to pound and to caress the ivories, Kenrick's Jerry sets the bar high as the first of the four to solo, with a foot-stomping "Real Wild Child." As his unruly head of curls flops wildly back and forth, his left leg invariably kicks heaven-ward as he continues to hit the keys with new vigor, singing "Don't you cramp my style, I'm a real wild child." Mr. Kenrick's depiction of Lewis wonderfully lives up to that one sung line time and again as he inserts himself into all conversations, tries to upstage (at least initially) the solos of others (especially Carl Perkins), and keeps bragging to the likes of Presley and Cash what a star he is going to be (even if he has only seen his first-ever flush toilet the night before).
Not to be outdone by the upstart Lewis as played by Kenrick, Tarif Pappu is off the charts as Carl Perkins. He exudes rock star from the top of his head with its left-side flopping lock of hair to the heels of his feet that rise up and slide left and right as he sings with a rocking voice. When he plays his electric guitar, his loving gazes toward the instrument are full of the kind of woo he might make in trying to get a young woman's attention. His own contagious cockiness is enhanced by a pair of eyebrows that expand to fill half his forehead. Mr. Pappu jumps to the top of the night's charts with still-favorite numbers like "Who Do You Love?" and "See You Later Alligator."
Within the first three to five sung notes of "Folsom Prison Blues," the sold-out crowd on opening night was appreciatively applauding as Greg Zema brought that well-known Johnny Cash calling-card voice to life. Donning the expected all-black outfit, Mr. Zema plays his cards close to the chest as the more serious, reserved Cash to contrast greatly with the over-zealousness of the hotter heads, Lewis and Perkins. His Johnny Cash serves the original well, except in sections of songs like "I Walk the Line" and "Ghost Riders" where Mr. Zema lacks the ability to reach the rich, lower bass notes so much expected by anyone who has ever listened to the Tennessee legend.
The only real disappointment of the evening comes from the one actor playing the star who has probably been impersonated on more stages from Vegas to Shanghai than any rock star ever: the King of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley. Unfortunately, Jaake Margo does not come close enough in voice to the real Elvis to do full justice to numbers like "That's All Right." He goes so overboard with "Long Tall Sally" and "Hound Dog" to come closer to yelling than singing. Even his movements are more spastic and jerky that the customary shaking one usually sees mimicked by the King's many present-day impersonators.
The real surprise of the evening comes when Elvis's girlfriend shows up at Sun Studios entwined in his arms wearing a skin-tight red dress and even redder lipstick. With a deep, lusty voice that sizzles in sexiness, Jessica LaFever's Dyanne takes her turn at the mike and sings with quivering lips a jaw-dropping "Fever," easily being rewarded one of the loudest, most sustained crowd reactions of the evening. Later, when she returns for a raw, reverberating "I Hear You Knocking," Ms. LaFever wows the audience both with her vocals as well as with erotic moves never overdone but performed with natural ease and confidence.
The evening's reenactment becomes ever more real with a soundstage setting designed by Nikolaj Sorensen authentic in many details, from the acoustic tile walls to the glassed-in recording studio where Sam Phillips performs his miracles of production. Pat Tyler has costumed each star, Dyanne, and Sam in the looks of the 1950s and in idiosyncratic touches that we still associate with the more famous of them. Edward Hunter's lighting and Jeff Grafton's sound help us alternate from the feel of an evening of jamming to a fully staged concert. Daniel Murguia and Ryan Stohs reign supreme on bass and drums, respectively, with all music under the able direction of Katie Coleman.
While the individual performances are not all on the same level of excellence, the overall effect still results in a rocking good time as Palo Alto Players sends its audience into the aisles half-dancing and universally humming one of the many well-known hits dished up by the Million Dollar Quartet.
Million Dollar Quartet continues through October 1, 2017, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available at www.paplayer.org or by calling 650-329-0891.