Great balls of fire, what a concert! You'll leave with your hands chapped from frenzied applause, while your memories of those spittin' days of early rock 'n' roll are professionally massaged into nostalgic jelly. Talk about a show with built-in "ahhh" appeal. Anyone who ever bopped to classic '50s tunes -- or those who only appreciate them on those compilation CDs hawked incessantly on late-night TV -- will not be disappointed. You can't go wrong with Hall of Famers Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins swinging through the night. Thanks to Gexa Energy Broadway and the immaculately cast touring company, the Hobby Center rocks.
You should know right from the top that there's not much of a play here. The loosey-goosey 2008 musical, with book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, another knockoff after the phenomenal success of the king of jukebox musicals, Jersey Boys, is sketchy and generic, given to clunky chunks of exposition to explain how each of these musicians happened to drop into Memphis's now-legendary Sun Records on December 4, 1956, for what turned out to be the mother of all jam sessions.
Sun's founder, Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant) narrates and lets us know how much he's responsible for shaping these hick farm boys into the consummate, original artists they've become. Manic Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye) is his latest discovery, hired to play piano for Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris), looking for another hit record after "Blue Suede Shoes." Elvis (Cody Slaughter), an established movie star but still tentative and a lot boyish, returns after a disastrous Vegas gig to convince Sam to come with him to RCA to advise and consent. Wanting to sing gospel, which Sam disparages, Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling) has already signed with rival Columbia, as has Perkins. They delay confessing their imminent betrayal to father figure Sam until show's end.
That's it for story, although Elvis's girlfriend Dyanne (Kelly Lamont) hangs out to sing Peggy Lee's sultry "Fever" for no conceivable reason except to add beguiling eye candy for all the graying geezers in the audience. Lamont has plenty of eye candy. Drummer Fluke (Billy Shaffer) and bassist Jay (Chuck Zayas) round out the melodious, spirited backup, but take no part in the drama.
The session actually happened on December 4, 1956 (Cash reputedly left early; there are as many conflicting accounts of this historic meeting as there were people in the studio). Even though this musical's book must have been written overnight, who cares? We're here for the music, and the Hobby was packed on opening night, everyone whooping, hollering and clapping their hands raw.
The frenzy was deserved, because the four actors, who also play their own instruments, are so jaw-droppingly awesome. Can you imagine the headaches for the poor producer trying to cast this show? Not only must you physically resemble these icons everybody knows by heart (minus Perkins, perhaps, who except for Cash had the longest career of any of them but never made it as a star), but you've got to sing like them, move like them when performing and, finally, play their instrument. These fab four do the impossible and transform this routine jukebox musical into an immense crowd-pleaser.
Each one of the ultra-talented quartet has his own perfections: Keeling is lean, dark and handsome, with Cash's cistern-deep bass voice and low-key intensity; Slaughter has Elvis's pivoting hips and pouty delivery; Ferris plays fiery guitar like the iconic inspiration he would later become to practically every famous rocker; and Kaye, with that finger-in-socket mop of hair, pounds the ivories with Lewis's genius abandon. As comedy relief, Kaye has the best role, since he's the loud-mouth, smart-ass kid who knows he's destined to become a star. He chaffs the others with his unbridled libido.
By the time we've boogied through "Matchbox," "Folsom Prison Blues," Long Tall Sally," "Great Balls of Fire," "My Babe," "I Hear You Knocking" and a dozen more '50s greatest hits, the rollicking finale -- in front of a Jersey Boys light grid with more dry ice than Phantom -- blasts the ceiling right off the Hobby. It's still sailing over Bagby, as you will, too, after this joyous celebration of youth and its rebellious music that will live forever.
Put on your poodle skirt, peg your dungarees, Brylcreem your pompadour and hop on over to the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, until March 4. Order tickets online at www.thehobbycenter.org or call 800-982-2787.
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