Million Dollar Quartet bops along to early rock ’n’ roll classics

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      Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. Directed by Bill Millerd. Produced by the Arts Club Theatre Company. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, May 17. Continues until July 9

      Everything is a remix, a retread, or a reboot. Just today I learned that Netflix is producing The Witcher, a TV show based on a series of books by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski that has also spawned a video game. I also read that YouTube sensation Postmodern Jukebox is also coming to town. It puts old-timey spins on contemporary pop songs.

      And what is Million Dollar Quartet but an old-timey remix? It’s a jukebox musical based on the unlikely meeting of four musical legends: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. They gathered for an impromptu jam session at Memphis’s famed Sun Records studio on December 4, 1956.

      This fabled night isn’t a dramatic invention—it actually happened. The show takes its name from a Basement Tapes–style recording that was released in 1981. The record is a fragmented, informal album—just four young men horsing around in the studio.

      The Arts Club production jettisons the shaggy, improvised mode of the original recordings for a much more polished presentation. The cast rips through 23 rockabilly and early rock ’n’ roll classics, from “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Great Balls of Fire”.

      The four leads are all capable musicians and respectable mimics. Jonas Shandel lights up when singing as Johnny Cash, and Kale Penny has serious chops as Carl Perkins. The cast was less certain between songs, with Graham Coffeng seeming to struggle with legendary producer Sam Phillips’s Alabama accent.

      In fairness, the actors aren’t given a lot to work with. As with many jukebox musicals, it’s all about the songs. The show has a plot that’s as thin as a high E string.

      The most thankless role belongs to Lauren Jackson as Dyanne, Elvis’s girlfriend. While she tears up the joint on a couple of songs, her character exists solely to cheer on the young rockers and cheer them up when they're down. Though Elvis brought a girlfriend to the Sun studio that night, Dyanne’s inclusion in the cast felt token, and just made the boys' club all the more conspicuous.

      Ted Roberts’s realistic set—all gold records and acoustic tiles—serves as a satisfying backdrop. I did wonder about some of Barbara Clayden’s costume choices. Both Erik Fraser Gow as Elvis and Jackson seemed to be swimming in their outfits. While they may have been historically accurate, some tactical tailoring might have been advised. If the guitars and microphones can be wireless, then no one will complain about slightly more modern profiles for the performers.

      As remixes go, Million Dollar Quartet doesn’t ask much of its audience. But if you want to return to a time when rock ’n’ roll was a toddler and snap your fingers to some classics, you could do a lot worse. The opening-night crowd bopped and doo-wopped along from the first song to the last.