The rockin' cast of "Million Dollar Quartet." Photo by Ken Jacques
If you’re not sweating even a little after a performance of “Million Dollar Quartet,” then you weren’t paying attention. Unless you’re one of those prigs referenced in the show who thinks rock ‘n’ roll is the devil, you were at the very least tapping your feet during this popular jukebox musical about a fabled Sun Records gathering of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis back in 1956.
It’s a shame you can’t get up and dance in the audience at Lamb’s Players Theatre, which is returning to live performances post-pandemic with Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott’s “Million Dollar Quartet.” So you sit there and move as much as is logistically and socially permissible, wishing in vain that there was a dance floor.
That’s one of the few built-in conundrums of this show: the performance of its rollicking tunes, be they “Hound Dog,” “Great Balls Of Fire” or “Who Do You Love,” cannot be fully appreciated sitting down.
Anyway, for “Million Dollar Quartet” to work it absolutely requires cast members who a.) can not only sing but sound reasonably like the legend being portrayed; b.) can play guitar or piano not just at all but well; and c.) can act.
After all, this is theater.
Lamb’s suceeds. The Coronado-based company previously staged “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Avo Playhouse in Vista three years ago. Its cast returns almost intact in this remounted production, the only change being Michael Louis Cusimano taking over from Walker Brinskele as Elvis. The returnees are Brett Benowitz as Perkins, Charles Evans Jr. as Cash and Ben Van Diepen as Lewis. (Onstage accompaniment comes from Mackenzie Leighton on upright bass and Brian Dall on drums.)
Now, back to those requirements. All these guys can play their instruments, with electric guitarist Benowitz the standout. Carl Perkins himself would be grinning. The most recognizable voices among Sun Records boss Sam Phillips’ discoveries are Presley’s and Cash’s. Cusimano can move like Elvis, but doesn’t sound much like him. Evans, on the other hand, moves and sounds (which is not easy) like the great Johnny Cash. He garnered a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle award for his JC portrayal at the Avo, and it’s easy to see why.
Everybody at Lamb’s can sell his part, with the manic Van Diepen a crowd-pleasing Jerry Lee Lewis.
As at the Avo, Lance Arthur Smith returns as Sam Phillips, a role essentially swamped by all the music and big personalities in his midst. “Million Dollar Quartet” also includes the completely desultory presence of Dyanne, a gal pal of Elvis’ who comes with him to the Sun studio and is even given two songs: the Peggy Lee standard “Fever” and Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King’s “I Hear You Knocking.” Katie Sapper is fine at Lamb’s, but the subtraction of this character’s numbers would shorten the intermission-less “Million Dollar Quartet” a good 10 minutes.
The story of this Sun Records recording session is pretty well known and the stage musical telling builds in a few mini-dramas, principally around the awkwardness of Phillips’ stars having gone on to (in the case of Elvis) or about to go on to (Cash, Perkins) bigger and better things. Accounts of the actual event don’t reference such tensions. They do report that most of the music played on that Dec. 4 were gospel songs. A few of them are in “Million Dollar Quartet," but predominantly the score is comprised of rousing rock favorites: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Long Tall Sally,” “See You Later Alligator,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
Which brings us back to trying to sit still during the performance.
It ain’t easy.
"Million Dollar Quartet" runs through June 12 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat