Stars have talent, but 'Million Dollar Quartet' proves weakest of Artist Series' season


For the final 15 minutes, “Million Dollar Quartet” had the crowd on its feet.

Keep in mind, this came only after a standing ovation that felt more obligatory than any the Artist Series had seen this season. If only the writers allowed these legends to uncork their fire earlier and if only the story was engaging enough to hold it all together.

Don't blame the stars. Cody Ray Slaughter (Elvis Presley), James Barry (Carl Perkins), Scott Moreau (Johnny Cash) and John Countryman (Jerry Lee Lewis) displayed the vocal and musical talent to keep the Times-Union Center's Moran Theater rocking on April 22. But for too long, the 100-minute musical (without an intermission) rests on a thin plot of four legends arriving in Memphis with very different agendas.

Based on the legendary recording session on Dec. 4, 1956, at Sun Records, the jukebox musical takes liberties with the songbook, but that mostly can be forgiven. (Other lesser-known songs and more gospel hits were played at the actual session, which was recorded by Sun founder Sam Phillips.)

To be fair, major hits "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Folsom Prison Blues" kept the opening night crowd tapping their feet, and that finale of "Hound Dog," "Riders in the Sky," "See You Later Alligator" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" sent many home satisfied.

However, some of the lines in "Million Dollar Quartet" might leave you wondering if these jokes were even funny in 1956. At one point, Sam pleads "Say amen, somebody," and Jerry Lee replies, "Amen, somebody."

No, it wasn't all that bad. Carl points out that "drunks don't buy records," and Johnny's reply, "they just make them," earned one of the night's biggest laughs.

Barry delivers the most memorable performance, though he has the advantage of playing the least-known of the four legends.

As Sam, Vince Nappo has the unenviable task of trying to hold the story together. More than once, he comes running out, begging for applause from the audience.

Don't blame him either. Blame the writers, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. All these stars must go through the motions of a weak plot — including a rivalry that plays out as canned between the then-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis and the "has-been" Carl Perkins.

Maybe, you can forgive all that. Maybe, you can forgive a sparse set and no set changes. Maybe, you can forgive Mutrux and Escott having Sam utter "Million Dollar Quartet" not once but twice.

However, in Artist Series' stellar 2013-'14 season of Broadway in Jacksonville, "Million Dollar Quartet" was easily the weakest.

Where "Memphis, The Musical," "War Horse" and "Blue Man Group" soared at the T-U Center, this quartet coasts on nostalgia. Few will complain, but midway through, you might already be thinking about next season's "The Book of Mormon."

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