'Million Dollar Quartet' plays the hits

Legendary recording session brought to life by Palo Alto Players

The Palo Alto Players' South Bay regional premiere of "The Million Dollar Quartet," inspired by the legendary Sun Records recording session that brought together Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, is essentially a concert showcasing the early days of rock 'n' roll during 90-minutes of virtually nonstop 1950s hits played on stage by performers portraying the iconic artists.

With that said, it's the performers' musical chops that will either make or break the show for audience members, so if you're not impressed with Palo Alto's version of Perkins' rockabilly guitar, Elvis' vocals or Lewis' showmanship on the piano, then you most likely won't enjoy the show.

While Palo Alto Players doesn't completely hit it out of the park, the performers -- who play their instruments on stage throughout the show -- do a decent enough job to get the audience clapping along to the music and occasionally tapping its feet.

"Million Dollar Quartet" tells the story (well, kinda) of that single night on Dec. 4, 1956, when visionary record producer Sam Phillips brought together the four musicians at his Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee, for an impromptu recording session that eventually would become known as the Million Dollar Quartet.

Don't expect a strong plot or a lot of backstories from that night. The Tony-award-winning musical, written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, isn't meant to be historically accurate but does provide a brief look at these legendary musicians' careers (and insecurities) and the dynamics of that particular night in a humorous way through some lighthearted banter and lots of rock 'n' roll -- 22 songs, to be exact.

The show opens in the studio with Phillips (Jeremy Ryan) telling the audience that he must make a big decision that night -- whether to abandon his small label (Sun Records) or join RCA records, to whom he sold Elvis' contract the previous year to keep Sun afloat. Perkins (Tarif Pappu) is in the studio with his session players trying to record a comeback after the release of his song "Blue Suede Shoes" (which turned into a chart-topping hit after Presley recorded his own version of it). Overzealous newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis (Nick Kenrick) is in the studio to provide backup for Perkins -- who doesn't want to have anything to do with the flamboyant Lewis or his piano.

During the session, Presley (Jaake Margo), his girlfriend Dyanne (Jessica LaFever), and Cash (Greg Zema) drop by and the impromptu jam session unfolds on stage with Presley doing his version of "Blue Suede Shoes." Each of the musicians takes turns playing for one another and with one another. They perform everything from "Fever," "Brown-eyed Handsome Man" and "Sixteen Tons" to "Down by the Riverside."

The local actors cast in this performance are all talented musicians. Margo plays in a rockabilly band and Pappu is a singer and songwriter who recently released his debut album. But it's Kenrick as Lewis who steals the show with his high-energy performance that includes the crazy antics one would expect from "The Killer" (a.k.a. Lewis). Without missing a note, Kenrick plays the keys from on top of the piano with his hands behind his back. He does everything short of setting the piano on fire.

And while it seems like the real purpose of the show is to let the performers cut loose and perhaps create an impromptu magical moment of their own on stage, the dialogue -- as sparse as it is -- gets in the way. Throughout the show, just as a song is starting to take off, the musicians must stop playing to let Phillips narrate.

It's not until close to the end of the show that the musicians can freely perform without interruption. And that's when they are at their best.

What: “Million Dollar Quartet”

Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Oct. 1.

Cost: $31-$49.

Info: Go to Palo Alto Players.

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