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November 29, 2012

'Million Dollar Quartet' rocks and rolls into the Hippodrome

Folks of a certain age — you know, the kind whose only exposure to public television occurs during fundraising programs featuring aging rock-’n’-rollers — are the obvious target audience for “Million Dollar Quartet,” the jukebox musical now at the Hippodrome.

But this high-energy homage to four giants who emerged in the 1950s is eager to grab anyone else along the way.

Even those rare souls who never fell under the spell of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash or Carl Perkins, and who are usually resistant to the three-chord stasis and banal lyrics of so much early rock may find their pulse quickening slightly and their feet inching toward tap mode.

OK, so I’m talking about me, as ’50s-averse as they come. And I can vouch for how this show can win you over, not with anything as fancy as an honest-to-goodness plot or cliche-free dialogue, but simply with ...

an exuberant commemoration of a legendary night in pop music history.

On Dec. 4, 1956, Presley, Lewis, Cash and Perkins — aptly dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet” — ended up in a jam session at the Sun Records studio in Memphis. That’s the place where they all got started, thanks to the record company’s founder, Sam Phillips, visionary pioneer of rock and rockabilly.

The intermission-less “Million Dollar Quartet,” with a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, provides a lightly fictionalized and compressed account of this back story about Phillips and his “boys.”

The kernel of drama involves issues of contracts and loyalty. But the main focus is on re-enacting — with considerable poetic license — the extraordinary collision of personalities and talents in that Memphis studio.

“Million Dollar Quartet” opened on Broadway in 2010 and enjoyed a modest run. Smoothly directed by Eric Schaeffer, head of the top-notch Signature Theatre in Arlington, it’s a textbook example of the genre — thin story woven through lots of familiar songs, with the obligatory postlude where the audience is encouraged to jump up and clap or dance through a few more tunes.

The national touring production, which is playing Baltimore before Washington, looks handsome in its nicely detailed set by Derek McLane. It sounds terrific.

The four lead actors do their own singing and playing, which gives the music a potent immediacy (bassist Corey Kaiser and drummer Billy Shaffer fill out the ensemble vibrantly). The performers also jump wholeheartedly into the impersonations, especially Cody Slaughter, who bears an almost spooky resemblance to the young Presley, from the sparkling smile to the agile hip action. Vocally, he is darn close, too.

Slaughter doesn’t really get past the imitation, though, to create a thoroughly persuasive character. You’re always aware that he is doing Elvis. David Elkins is likewise self-conscious as Cash, but when he “walks the line” or bemoans getting “deeper in debt,” it sounds like the real deal, and that’s what counts.

Robert Britton Lyons, who originated the role of Perkins, is as impressive with his acting as with his singing and guitar work, so comfortable and spontaneous that he lifts the whole show a notch. The part of Lewis, used here to deliver jolts of humor, irreverence and manic enthusiasm, suits Martin Kaye neatly. He’s quick, funny and plays a mean piano.

Vince Nappo is disarming as Phillips, revealing telling layers behind the character even when he is stuck doing narration duty. Kelly Lamont, as Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne, reveals a generally sturdy singing voice when she gets her turn, but she tends to let her bosom do most of the acting.

"Million Dollar Quartet" runs through Sunday at the Hippodrome.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:40 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog
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