Theater Review: 'Million Dollar Quartet'

If ever a toe-tapping, foot-stomping jukebox musical was overdue to be staged it’s “Million Dollar Quartet,” written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. It is a rhythmic retelling and dramatization of a recording session made in December of 1956 at the Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. The four young musicians at play were Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. Though a production of “Quartet” opened on Broadway in 2010, SoCal theatergoers now (through July 29) have to opportunity to experience a homegrown staging of the show at the Lovely Laguna Playhouse, in artsy Laguna Beach.

Directed with élan by Tim Seib, and with astute musical direction provided by Jon Rossi (who also mans the drums masterfully as the character W.S. Fluke), the story conveyed here is not only a jewel in the treasure trove of rock ‘n roll legends, it’s also a unique piece of American folklore. Imagine – Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and, the man who’d one day become “The King of Rock ‘n Roll,” Elvis Presley – all gathered together and making music. That’s exactly what’s been keenly replicated in this marvelous theatrical mounting.

Austin Hohnke brings believability to his portrayal of rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins (who authored the catchy “Blue Suede Shoes” and the much covered “Matchbox”). Jerry Lee Lewis is performed as a great ball of energy by Billy Rude – not only does Rude capture the musicianship of Lewis, he also displays astonishing athleticism. Johnny Cash is credibly incarnated by Peter Oyloe whose performance emerges slowly but with certainty and is in full bloom with such Cash hits as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” And then there’s Elvis Presley, charmingly characterized by Daniel Durston; this is the Elvis before the rhinestone-studded, jump-suited icon, and through Durston’s embodiment of Presley we see the contagiousness of Presley’s charisma and appreciate his innate musical talents.

But even a “Million Dollar Quartet,” as music producer Sam Phillips called this group of cultural innovators, doesn’t function without the collaboration of other players and supporters. In this case, Sam Phillips is the major mover and shaker of this earthshaking moment in popular music and he’s a firm but avuncular figure as characterized by Hugh Hysell. As a character inspired by dancer Marilyn Evans – who dated Elvis and accompanied him to this Sun session – Tiffan Borelli, portrays Dyanne (a name substituted in lieu of “Marilyn” due to a privacy request), and if your temperature doesn’t rise during her sultry rendition of “Fever,” have someone check your pulse. Additionally, there’s Bill Morey who does some scene-snatching feats on the bass fiddle as Brother Jay (Carl Perkins’s younger sibling). Oh, and all of the performers play and sing in real time, no lip syncing or prerecorded fabrications.

With nearly two dozen songs in two acts in a two-hour time period (including one fifteen-minute intermission), audiences have the pleasure of seeing, hearing, and recalling the efforts of a small group of music-makers making a mark on popular culture that resonates to this day.

“Million Dollar Quartet” continues at the Laguna Playhouse through July 29.

Evening performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Sundays (except on July 29).

Matinees are Thursdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 1 p.m. on Sundays (no matinee on Thursday, July 12).

The Laguna Playhouse is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

For reservations, call (949)497-2787. For online ticketing and further information, visit