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THEATER REVIEW: “Million Dollar Quartet”

You’ve heard about serendipity, but imagine dropping into a Memphis recording studio where rock ’n’ roll greats Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and the king himself – Elvis Presley – are having an impromptu jam session.

That session actually did take place on Dec. 4, 1956 at Sun Record Studios, when the four happened to be there at the same time. Broadway San Diego brings us the jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet” – celebrating that one-time-only event – through Dec. 8 at San Diego Civic Theatre.

“There ain’t no fakin’,” the pre-show announcer says. “These boys are really playin’.”

Play they do – and sing, in this jukebox musical nostalgia trip that will have you tapping your toes and at least wanting to sing along, perhaps even to dance in the aisle. Never mind that most of these songs are not the ones they sang that day (mostly country and gospel). This is a revue of 23 songs, many bona fide hits of the era.

On that December day, Perkins (James Barry) was there to cut some new material with the help of brother and bassist Jay Perkins (Corey Kaiser) and drummer Fluke (Patrick Morrow).

Phillips had invited Lewis (not known for playing background) to sit in on the ivories, a move not especially appreciated by Perkins.

Perkins is the quietest personality of the four, but Barry gives his songs (notably the raucous “See You Later Alligator”) as much oomph as they need.

John Countryman takes no prisoners as the piano-pounding Lewis, who occasionally even plays with one foot. And he performs “Great Balls of Fire” like to the manor born.

Cash (Andrew Frace) walks in, wanting to tell Phillips that he’s signed with another label but unable to do so. But he does sing “Folsom Prison Blues” and later really wails on “Sixteen Tons.” Frace doesn’t look much like Cash, but he’s got those wondrous low notes.

Elvis (Cody Slaughter) walks in with girlfriend Dyanne (Kelly Lamont). Now here’s an Elvis impersonator. It’s not for nothing that Slaughter was named Ultimate Tribute Artist of 2011 by the Presley estate. He not only looks and sounds like the King; he’s also got the moves and you know which ones I’m talking about. It’s a bravura performance.

Lamont’s Dyanne gets in on the act, giving “Fever” all the torrid sultriness it can stand and rocking “I Hear You Knocking.”

If you’re looking for drama, this isn’t for you: the paper-thin plot manufactures beefs between the stars that never happened, but who cares? They can all sing like their characters, some even look like them, and the whole is great fun, if a tad loud.

Sun Records entrepreneur Sam Phillips (a terrific Vince Nappo) discovered all these future greats and gave them their start. The only real story is that Phillips lost them all to other labels. But isn’t it great that he brought them to us?

The details

“Million Dollar Quartet” plays through Dec. 8 at San Diego Civic Theatre, Third and B streets, downtown.

Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6 pm.

Tickets: HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.