It quickly becomes clear that it takes eight people to make the “Million Dollar Quartet” rock off the Century II stage – as it does – in the rousing opening show of the season for Theater League.
Sure, Tyler Hunter captures the smoldering pout and liquid swivel of Elvis Presley, James Barry masters the electrified licks of rockabilly king Carl Perkins, Scott Moreau embodies the soulful depth and deep bass resonance of Johnny Cash, and scene-stealer John Countryman is explosively manic as a deliciously out-of-control Jerry Lee Lewis.
The four make up the titular group, who got together one time on Dec. 4, 1956, at Sun Records to jam, reminisce, reflect and celebrate as four young guys plucked out of lower-class anonymity and pointed at superstardom.
But you can’t discount Corey Kaiser as their backup bass player, Jay Perkins (Carl’s brother), and Patrick Morrow as their studio drummer Fluke, who are decidedly instrumental – pun intended – to fill out the familiar music behind the future legends.
You also can’t underestimate Kelly Lamont as Dyanne, one of Elvis’ girlfriends, who accompanied him on that fateful and historic afternoon. Dyanne is a composite rather than a historic figure in her own right, and Lamont provides the lone female voice for harmonizing with the boys. She encompasses the sophisticated sultriness of Peggy Lee (“Fever”) but with a bit more strength and edge (“I Hear You Knocking”). Boy, can she ever belt one out.
And you certainly can’t overlook Vince Nappo as Sam Phillips, the visionary founder of Sun Records who discovered, believed in and shaped all four future stars. Sam is the narrative glue that holds this show together, and Nappo is the talkative, full-of-himself, good ol’ country boy guide down this nostalgic – and sometimes surprisingly poignant – path. He is the only one who breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, moving seamlessly from a one-man Greek chorus to interacting with the other characters, from flashbacks when they first met to that once-in-a-lifetime get-together.
The show is a jukebox musical conceived by Floyd Mutrux and written into a sort of musical docudrama by Mutrux and Colin Escott. It features 23 classic songs – mostly rock ’n’ roll, but also a little country, a little gospel, a little pop – and some sharp banter among the guys, showing their friendly rivalries as well as occasional jealousies.
It’s meant to be a feel-good – make that feel-great – show, but it doesn’t neglect some darker issues, like Phillips selling Elvis to RCA to save Sun Records with an infusion of cash and Cash and Perkins leaving Sun for supposedly greener pastures at Columbia Records. There’s a lot of fun on stage with just the right amount of emotional punch to make it more substantial than a musical revue.
The four leads are pretty well matched in talent and intensity to bring their legendary characters to life. Hunter as Elvis blossoms before our very eyes through variations of “That’s All Right, Mama” as he evolves from an untested singer with raw talent into a charismatic and perhaps dangerous heartthrob. Hunter also thrills with a beautiful and haunting rendition of “Peace in the Valley.”
As Cash, Moreau sends his voice plunging into deep bass territory for “Sixteen Tons” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” As Perkins, Barry turns his guitar every which way but loose for “Blue Suede Shoes” and “See You Later Alligator.”
But Countryman as brash, outspoken, playfully sexual Lewis always draws just a little extra attention, whether pounding out “Great Balls of Fire” or “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” at the piano like he was killing snakes or mouthing off as a virtual unknown who already thinks he’s as good as the others. Countryman revels in using Jerry Lee’s iconic moves, from shaking his unruly hair to the beat to capping a run up the keyboard with his heel – and sometimes his butt.
By only a few bars into the finale, you won’t be able to stay quietly in your seat. The curtain call becomes an impromptu concert that will send you out exhausted but exhilarated.