A healthy appetite for old-time rock ‘n’ roll is both necessary and sufficient to enjoy “Million Dollar Quartet,” in which a fabled 1956 Sun Records jam session, featuring four indisputable legends, becomes an excuse to assemble four impersonators for a jukebox medley of classics. Call it “Memphis Boys.” The music’s worth the titular million bucks in this touring edition of the Gotham hit, though even die-hard fans may get antsy in their Pantages seats whenever, to paraphrase Jerry Lee Lewis, there’s a whole lot of nothin’ goin’ on.
Librettists Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux haven’t come up with much in the way of conflict, or even scintillating conversation, for this supposedly fateful meeting. The studio might as well be an airport lounge for Lewis (Martin Kaye); rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris); Man in Black Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling); and Elvis the King himself (Cody Slaughter), with a chickadee (Kelly Lamont) in tow for some reason.
Lewis showboats incessantly, and Perkins still resents it was Elvis’ cover of his “Blue Suede Shoes” that became the worldwide smash. Otherwise, this summit is pretty much all shuffling and muttered reminiscence. H’lo, I’m Johnny Cash. Nice to meetcha. You had a twin brother, Elvis? Mah mah.
Even the motives of Sun impresario Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant) seem contrived — he seeks a contract reup for Cash, who’d rather record a gospel album for Capitol — and the end-of-an-era musings ring hollow. Grant can’t seem to remember whether he’s to play betrayed patriarch, neutral narrator or mein hearty host.
But once Chuck Zayas’ bass line starts or Billy Shaffer hits the skins, well, “That’s All Right” — as Slaughter feelingly sings with all the right Elvis moves, switching effortlessly from diffidence to electricity at showtime.
Ferris’s approximation of Perkins’ intensity, taken out on the electric guitar during “Who Do You Love?” and “Party,” seems right. And though Keeling’s face and manner lack Cash’s miles of bad road, that’s no impediment to sizzling renditions of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.”
As for Jerry Lee, one doesn’t envy casting directors Telsey & Co. and Bethany Knox’s mandate to find a thesp the right look and age who can play piano while lying on his back. Kaye fills the bill, while decidedly muting the much-married superstar’s sexual heat (he could use more of those great balls of fire he keeps singing about).
Jane Greenwood’s costumes are spot-on, with Howell Binkley finding moody shadows in the detailed nooks and crannies of Derek McLane’s set. The visual dimension is much more interesting than the action itself, until everything breaks open and “Million Dollar Quartet” finally becomes the flat-out rock concert it always wants to be.