Friday, June 21, 2024

Theatre Review: The Wick’s Scorching “Million Dollar Quartet”

In some ways, The Wick’s enormously successful production of the jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” running through May 21, simply meets expectations: With a titular cast that, collectively, has performed their iconic parts upwards of 9,500 times, anything less than absolute perfection would be as shocking as seeing Bruce Springsteen fumble his own lyrics in a performance of “Born to Run.” The roles are in these gentlemen’s bones.

But drill into the details, and the Wick’s dynamite season closer is more than a copy-and-paste job from any number of regional or touring productions of this ubiquitous musical. Its ultimate success lies in the invisible pace-setting of director Zachariah Rosenbaum, who captures the show’s synergy with an almost voyeuristic verisimilitude. Never forgetting that “Million Dollar Quartet” arose from an off-the-cuff jam session between four proto-rock legends, Rosenbaum generates an atmosphere of anything-can-happen looseness, or at least the illusion of it. Amid the wafts of cigarette smoke, the muttered rejoinders and the interstitial bass noodling, the script all but disappears.

“Million Dollar Quartet,” which had its pre-Broadway tryout right here in Florida in 2006, is inspired by a fabled, real-life evening in rock history: Dec. 4, 1956, when Carl Perkins (Matt McClure), Jerry Lee Lewis (Lance Lipinsky), Johnny Cash (Bill Scott Sheets) and Elvis Presley (Cole) convened, by a combination and intention and happenstance, in the ratty but influential Sun Records studio in Memphis. Beyond this documented meeting of the musical minds, the story is fiction: Book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux invented or amalgamated various threads into a cohesive story centered around the uncertain financial future of Sam Phillips (Paul Louis, folksy and affable), Sun Records’ enterprising founder and the show’s narrator.

Phillips has invited Cash back to Sun to renew his contract, though the Man in Black has other plans; RCA Records is pushing to buy Sun from Phillips, with Presley longing for a return to Sun’s pure and formative era; Lewis, a penniless and unknown country boy, is merely hoping to be heard. Perkins has always been the show’s odd man out, and its most tragic figure, could such a term be designated for a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. The way it’s presented in “Million Dollar Quartet,” Perkins been hitless since his original composition “Blue Suede Shoes” was co-opted by Presley, a bitterness that boils over in one of the musical’s many clashes of ego.

The fact that such tensions are felt so starkly in this production of “Million Dollar Quartet” is notable, because the story needn’t be more than window dressing to put butts in seats: Few attendees, after all, are drawn to this show for its plot. Yet under Rosenbaum’s helmsmanship, we don’t lose sight of the bigger issues swirling around the incredible performances. When Sheets’ Cash, for instance, performs an almost catatonic version of “I Walk the Line” near the show’s end, it’s a choice that resonates emotionally. He’s on the precipice of revealing a crushing secret to Phillips, and he’s discovered a kind of solemnity—a resignation of sorts—in his own lyrics.

The actors—all of them, as mentioned, seasoned hands at their parts—communicate their roles without mimicry and caricature while still embodying their characters’ signature moves and cadences. Cole’s hips shake and legs wobble with Presleyan charisma. Lipinsky is a force of nature in the role, his fingers possessed as they dance across the 88 keys—when he’s not playing with his feet or his derriere, that is. McClure is a stoic presence as Perkins, and comes closest onstage to the definition of a musician’s musician: His guitar mastery is unmatched.

And I can’t say enough about Mallory Newbrough’s pair of scene-stealing performances, which is saying a lot given this cast of talented musical thieves. As Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne, a sultry jazz singer in her own right, Newbrough all but peels the paint off the walls of Kimberly Wick’s beautiful period set with her scorching performances of “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking.”

Central to the show’s success is the visceral appeal of its live band, not something typically offered for The Wick’s more-traditional Broadway musicals, and an indispensable asset. Standup bassist Aaron Krings and drummer St. Rose, both aces on their instruments, make for a generous and enthusiastic rhythm section, and their between-song vamps undergird every moment with a sense of forward motion. Stay all the way to the end of the show’s sensational “encore,” and by all means, give the drummer some.

“Million Dollar Quartet” runs through May 21 at The Wick, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Tickets run $79-$99. Call 561/995-2333 or visit thewick.org.


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John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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