'Million Dollar Quartet' is a rock 'n' roll treasure
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A title like "Million Dollar Quartet" is a lot to live up to, not to mention the audacity of bringing the youthful Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis back to life at a singular moment in their collective histories, and ours.
Well, that's all right, mama, because this show is one in a million, delivering on the big names and rock classics that the name promises.
The national touring company at the Benedum Center stays true to its historic roots while offering a fresh take on a musical and a concert experience. On a set that is a fair re-creation of Sun Studios, a former auto parts store in Memphis, the mood and the performances are electric, transporting us to the real-life, one-time-only jam session on a December day in 1956.
The day holds the promise of reunion of friends and colleagues in rock 'n' roll, but trouble is brewing. Father figure Sam Phillips, the star-making head of Sun, has sold Elvis' contract to RCA to save the financially strapped studio. While Phillips is being courted to join Elvis at RCA, Cash is ready to jump ship for Columbia, Perkins is in desperate need of a follow-up hit to "Blue Suede Shoes" and a new kid in town, Jerry Lee Lewis, has arrived from the back woods of Louisiana to declare himself the next big thing.
Oh, and Elvis -- in the person of look-alike Cody Slaughter -- is about to enter the building, accompanied by a smart and sassy girlfriend, Dyanne (Kelly Lamont). The soon-to-be King is fresh from his first film and the success of "Love Me Tender," which his old friends find easy to parody. Mr. Slaughter not only has the looks and the voice, but he has the hip-swiveling moves that forced Ed Sullivan to film the real Elvis above the waist.
As much as Mr. Slaughter looks like Elvis, the performances are more organic than outright impersonations. Derek Keeling's Johnny Cash, for instance, thrills the audience with his how-low-can-you-go vocal register, but the real Cash's voice during the Sun era was much more mellow -- think "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," not sung here. In fact, most of the songs in "Million Dollar Quartet" were not sung at the historic Sun session depicted here, but this is a representation -- a dream playlist from writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and music director Chuck Mead -- not a documentary, and the show is the better for it.
The meeting of wayward Sun players proceeds with a touch of impending doom in the air, but the quartet keeps the hits coming, and Christopher Ryan Grant as Phillips is the perfect mix of moxy, ringmaster and go-between, connecting the audience to the emotion of this magical musical moment.
The nearly two-hour show with no intermission starts, appropriately, with "Blue Suede Shoes," a song that was Carl Perkins' hit before Elvis made it his with that "Ed Sullivan Show" appearance. Strapping Lee Ferris as Perkins keeps that resentment bubbling just below the surface, revealing it in occasional outbursts, and playing a mean electric guitar. Perkins is irritated further when upstart piano player and all-around goofy hick Jerry Lee Lewis arrives on the scene -- another talented kid come along to steal his thunder.
And thunder and lightning and quakin' and shakin' is what Martin Kaye brings to the stage in an electric turn as a juvenile Jerry Lee. The role won Levi Kreis a Tony on Broadway, and Mr. Kaye is a worthy successor.
As Johnny Cash, Mr. Keeling brings rich, deep vocals to opening-night audience favorites "Folsom City Blues" and "I Walk the Line," plus a mighty duet with Mr. Ferris of "Sixteen Tons" and "My Babe."
The performers in the touring quartet not only inhabit real characters but also are accomplished musicians who become a cohesive band, with a strong hand from drummer Fluke (Billy Shaffer) and bass player Jay Perkins (Chuck Zayas), Carl's brother, both of whom were at Sun Studios on that December day.
The historic photograph that shows the real life Million Dollar Quartet gathered around the piano at Sun is used beautifully as a reminder that there is a basis for all the fun we've been having.
After a brief walk-off, the set is lifted and Vegas-style glittery jackets drop down from the rafters for the performers, who close out the show with some concert numbers that showcase Elvis, Carl, Johnny & Jerry Lee as we'd like to remember them, ending in a new, daring million-dollar pose.
Another reminder of the future comes from an exchange between Phillips and "Elv-i" as he's called by his mentor.
Elvis is hopeful that Phillips will join him at RCA because he needs someone nearby that he trusts. Folks in New York have been telling Elvis they want him out there as much as possible before this rock 'n' roll thing runs its course. His new handler, "The Colonel," booked him as an opening act for comedian Shecky Greene in Las Vegas, where he was booed off the stage.
"I'll never play Vegas again," he says.
Knowing how Vegas looms in Elvis' future, the dialogue draws a combination of laughs and sighs. It makes this moment in time, when youth and talent made all things possible, seem all the more precious.
First Published November 3, 2011 12:00 am