"Come on, baby," pleaded Jerry Lee Lewis, coaxing a member of the elderly audience out of her seat. "Shake it one time for me. Wiggle it 'round — just a little bit."
It was a Sunday matinee performance of Million Dollar Quartet at the Old Log Theater, the venerable institution situated in a bucolic campus on a Lake Minnetonka isthmus. A granddaddy of the Twin Cities theater scene, the Old Log has presented staged entertainment in a quaint, rustic setting since 1940.
That means the Old Log was 16 years old — and had already spent a decade under the ownership of local legend Don Stolz — when Sam Phillips asked Jerry Lee Lewis to play piano on a 1956 Sun Studio session by Carl Perkins. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash both stopped by the studio as well, and the four greats playing together were eventually given the moniker "Million Dollar Quartet."
Though a recording of the session reveals it was hardly a greatest-hits parade — the loose jam featured mostly gospel and country numbers — the simple fact that it happened was an irresistible premise for a jukebox musical, which premiered in 2006 and has since been widely produced. The Old Log version opened last month and runs through the rest of this year.
Taking certain details from the actual events of December 4, 1956, Million Dollar Quartet writers Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott bend the truth into a story about Phillips' changing relationships with his stable of stars. Presley has already left for superstardom with RCA; Cash and Perkins are also preparing to jump ship, while Lewis has just signed to Sun. The show lionizes Phillips, who's toasted onstage as "the father of rock and roll."
Mutrux and Escott nod, awkwardly but crucially, to the fact that the session didn't feature any of the black performers whose musical parentage claims Phillips himself would not have disputed. Even so, the whole production is salt in the still-open historical wound that was opened when white musicians stormed the charts with music rooted in African-American traditions.
On a casting level, Million Dollar Quartet is a challenging show to produce: You need four triple-threat performers who can sing, play, and act. Let's just say that each member of the Old Log's quartet can do at least two of those things.
Eric Sargent's Cash is self-effacing to the point of almost disappearing (as, in fact, Cash may have done during the actual session). As Elvis, Frank Joseph Moran gamely swivels his hips, while Matt Tatone's Carl Perkins struggles under the weight of his own success as well as his goth-level eyeliner. Eric Morris seems to realize that the entire show will live or die on the level of vigor he brings to Jerry Lee Lewis. Accordingly, Morris goes near-manic during performances of "Real Wild Child" and "Whole Lotta Shakin'," flipping his hair like Taylor Swift on a Diet Coke bender.
The show also requires precise direction and confident timing to navigate the constant transitions to and from flashbacks, in and out of the studio, and from one song to another. Doubtless things will tighten up over the many months director R. Kent Knutson has to hone this material, but right now it's a little ragged, with weirdly long pauses and choppy shifts in dynamics. A strong point of the production is Erik Paulson's set, which elegantly incorporates the iconic photo of the four stars into a replica of the sound-insulated room where the magic happened.
For the final few numbers, the show veers into sheer fantasy as it imagines the actual Million Dollar Quartet these four might have made if they'd been thrown together in say, Vegas circa 1970. We're left thankful that never happened, but these 60-year-old songs do still rock; while the musicians don't quite blow the old logs off the roof, they at least singe them a little.
"The energy!" exclaimed a woman in front of me to her husband as we walked out of the theater. "It left me exhausted!" And she wasn't even the one who had to dance.
The Old Log Theatre
5185 Leadville St., Excelsior
Through December; 952-474-5951