There's something irresistible about eavesdropping on great musicians jamming, away from audiences and expectations. If someone thinks to turn on a microphone during such a session, you can end up with an invaluable souvenir.
That's what happened Dec. 4, 1956. In a major case of serendipity, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins stopped by Sun Records Studio in Memphis, Tenn., to see founder Sam Phillips, a key force in their careers. The music-making that night made history. It eventually made a pretty good jukebox musical, too.
"Million Dollar Quartet" — the title comes from the nickname a local paper gave the foursome after that impromptu night at Sun Records — ran on Broadway six years ago and toured extensively. It's enjoying a dynamic revival by the Infinity Theatre Company in Annapolis.
The show, with a book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, follows the song-after-song format of a jukebox musical. It's interspersed with dialogue that, if not cliche-free, establishes the characters neatly enough. Narrative is largely given to the figure of Phillips. He provides context directly to the audience, explaining how, for example, he sold Presley's contract to RCA to keep Sun Records shining.
The guys who jammed in '56 spent a lot of time trying out Christmas and gospel songs, as well as tunes associated with other artists. So instead of a literal recreation, the stage version subs in as many familiar blasts from the past as it can.
The Infinity production, smoothly directed by Tommy Iafrate and Alan Ostroff and given a more or less period look, boasts a cast that delivers all those hits with polish and personality. (This production inserts an intermission; the show works better without one.)
Brit Herring is a natural as the proud, vulnerable Phillips, making the most of the musical's one big scene of drama, involving Cash and a new contract that hasn't been signed.
Travis Artz might not win an Elvis impersonator contest, but he brings abundant style and charm, as well as sturdy musical chops, to the assignment. (The quartet members all play instruments as well as tackle the vocals.)
James Bock, who happens to resemble Perkins, animates the character with considerable flair. He easily evokes the rockabilly king's talent, as well as Perkins' mix of admiration and envy of Presley. Bock's a solid musician, too.
Cash, whose presence is so hard to detect on the surviving jam session recording that one wag said the group should have been called "The $750,000 Trio," is given equal treatment in the musical. Austin Wayne Price takes full advantage of that with a nicely nuanced performance. His singing isn't always effortless, but hits the spot.
Rounding out the quartet with a breakout performance is J.P. Coletta as loose-cannon Lewis. Unlike the other principals, he isn't a member of Actors' Equity Association with many a professional credit on their resumes. But this college student's performance suggests he'll make it in the business, and soon.
Except for a hairstyle that looks more '80s than '50s, Coletta is thoroughly convincing, whether adding yet another glissando on the upright piano or dishing out barbs and boasts. During the mini-concert at curtain call, the young actor kicks so forcefully into high gear you can't help but go along for the ride.
Bella Muller gives enough life to the underwritten role of Presley's girlfriend. Bassist Bob Abbott and drummer Chris Karabelas provide firm support.
Whatever its limitations as theater, "Million Dollar Quartet" works as homage and memory-kindler, and the well-honed Infinity production serves the material vibrantly.
Things get particularly telling when Artz, Bock, Coletta and Price harmonize warmly on "Peace in the Valley" and "Down by the Riverside." Such moments make it easy to sense what a magical night that was 60 years ago, when four big talents (and egos) fit seamlessly into one room.