The jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet” takes us back to a day when Elvis was still a scrappy young prince instead of the King, and Jerry Lee Lewis was auditioning as rock ‘n’ roll’s official court jester.
All roads led to Memphis on Dec. 4, 1956, when a fearsome foursome of rock royalty-to-be — Elvis, Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash — converged on Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio to engage in a jam session for the ages.
To commemorate that occasion, the Coronado-based Lamb’s Players’ Theatre has taken its own road trip, heading up the highway to stage a revival of the 2010 Broadway musical at the AVO Theatre in Vista. And great balls of fire, does Lamb’s make it worth the journey.
“Million Dollar Quartet” visited the San Diego Civic Theatre six years ago in a solid Broadway touring production. This one’s better. It feels more raw, more spontaneous, and more true to the spirit of a bunch of rock rebels sparking off the friction and fervor between them to make one passionate racket.
Not every moment is polished and perfect, but that seems fitting for what was in real life an impromptu, practically accidental gathering that was only recorded as something of an afterthought.
In this highly fictionalized account of the momentous session by writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, Phillips (portrayed by Lance Arthur Smith with country-gent charm and humor but a fierce sense of mission) serves as something of an emcee — introducing each of the players and pausing the action to fill in back stories on each.
All kinds of drama gets ginned up that was, by most accounts, absent from the real-life meeting, but is necessary to make this piece a play rather than some kind of tribute act. Chief among the conflicts is the antipathy between guitarist Perkins (Brett Benowitz), Phillips’ first big star, and flashy newcomer Lewis (Ben Van Diepen), the madman pianist.
(There’s a funny moment where Phillips, who’s very big on Lewis’ future, confides in him: “I’ve been thinkin’ we’ve taken this guitar thing as far as it can go.”)
Hard feelings also bubble up over matters of Cash’s Sun contract, Elvis’ meteoric stardom and the question of whether Phillips will keep his business independent or sell out to RCA.
So, argue away, fellas — but before that, how about another round of “Who Do You Love”?
It’s (obviously) the music that makes this musical, and this cast brings it: All play their own instruments, and in several cases they show an uncanny ability to channel the people they’re portraying.
That’s especially true of Evans, whose vocals on “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Walk the Line” and others are dead-on Johnny; he also carries himself with just the right grave, hangdog Cash comportment.
Benowitz is an ace on guitar as Perkins, and lends lots of brash attitude (and fine vocals) to the show. Brinskele has a good look for Elvis, and has mastered the King’s shimmy-and-shake; his voice is also the right kind of velvety for the softer songs, although he seemed to struggle a bit with tone on such hard-charging tunes as “Hound Dog” in an opening-week performance.
And then there’s Van Diepen (who’s also the production’s musical director) as Lewis: Funny, frenetic, and completely in his element as this piano-pounding showman, powering irresistibly through such show highlights as “Real Wild Child” and (of course) “Great Balls of Fire.”
Although the story relegates them mostly to the background, Mackenzie Leighton (as bassist Brother Jay) and Brian Dall (as drummer Fluke) make for a simmering rhythm section. And Katie Sapper, as Elvis’ gal Dyanne, puts up a drop-dead rendition of “Fever” and returns for a playful and potent “I Hear You Knockin’.”
Lamb’s associate artistic chief Kerry Meads directs with plenty of pop, and Mathys Herbert’s vintage studio set, Jemima Dutra’s period costumes, Nathan Peirson’s lighting and Patrick Duffy’s sound all complement the action.
A million bucks may not buy what it used to, but when it comes to giving a glimpse of history, this show feels right on the money.
‘Million Dollar Quartet’
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 1.
Where: Lamb’s Players Theatre at the AVO Playhouse, 303 Main St., Vista.
Tickets: $28-$82 (discounts available).
Phone: (619) 437-6000