Brian Jacobson
Growing pains of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Million Dollar Quartet

By - Nov 16th, 2011 12:24 pm
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The four legends at the center of “Million Dollar Quartet”. Photo: Joan Marcus, courtesy the MPCA and tour.

Musicals can be about rousing dance numbers with a cast of dozens.  Not so in Million Dollar Quartet, which opened at the Marcus Center Tuesday night. In a rock concert, songs are played from beginning to end without much interruption or melodrama.  Not so much in this show.

So just what is Million Dollar Quartet?  The curtain rises actors playing four legends of early rock — Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash — singing and playing with equal voice and rank.  It’s a little worrisome; will the Broadway glitz weigh too heavily?  Then Sam Phillips begins to speak to the audience, and you realize this is his story and his fantasy.

Christopher Ryan Grant as Sam Phillips. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Phillips was a former radio deejay and shrewd businessman with an ear for talent.  In 1950, he opened Sun Studios and Records in Memphis, Tenn. He discovered the above-noted artists and more, including Howlin’ Wolf and Roy Orbison.

Two years after making Elvis a star, he gathers two of his favorite contracted artists. As he is just trying out Jerry Lee, Elvis arrives for a jam session.  A unique and special night resulted. Million Dollar Quartet began with a real photograph shot on that historic meeting of rock pioneers.

This show catches the future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers at different crossroads in their young careers.  Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris) had a huge hit, but a car accident sidelines him; he has to watch others make his songs and stylings popular.  Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling) wants to do more spiritual Gospel records as his Sun contract ends and Columbia Records waits in the wings.  Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye, in a standout and bombastic role) is fresh and full of spunk and rebellion against his bible-school upbringing.  Elvis Presley (Cody Slaughter) arrives with his latest girlfriend and singer Dyanne (Kelly LaMont) on a swing through from Hollywood to new digs with RCA in New York.  Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant) is being courted again to merge with RCA, and Elvis wants to work with him there. Phillips has other plans.

Once the big Broadway start subsides, musically everything falls into place.  Such period hits as Real Wild Child, Matchbox, Folsom Prison Blues and That’s All Right flow naturally from the jam-session structure of the story. Each artist shines.  One false note is Fever, for Dyanne, Presley’s Vegas showgirl, based on the real-life Marilyn Evans (who is commonly cropped from the famous photo).  Her number doesn’t quite fit the soundtrack,  but she’s redeemed in a glorious I Hear You Knocking.

Cody Slaughter as Elvis Presley in the national tour of Million Dollar Quartet. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Million Dollar Quartet applies 2011 technology and engineering capabilities to a “live” version of a vintage event. Perkins’ electric guitar sounds warm and full-bodied, LED lighting effects make everything vibrant, and hidden headphone microphones make every word and note understandable.  Subsequent generations of musicians have added twang and verve to these songs, and some of that creeps into this show as the actors sing and play.  (Yes, they actually play.)

Cody Slaughter as Elvis Presley is more than a Vegas tribute act.  The black sheen on his hair is perfect, his clothes are tailored just as you remember. His hustle and wiggle are just right.  It’s a little disturbing that Slaughter works so hard to be Elvis that he doesn’t leave much room to be a human being.  By contrast, Derek Keeling’s Johnny Cash is low-key and low-registered, but filled with smoldering depth.  Martin Kaye’s Jerry Lee Lewis is meant to be the comic foil, but his smashing piano playing transcends the thankless role.

In the end, we are treated to a kind of Glenfiddich-induced fever dream of the broken-hearted Sam Phillips.  It’s a concert of what could have been, complete with sequined coats, a wall of lights, and a sound that the 1950s could only dream about.  Is it a musical?  It’s hard to tell when the standing ovation brings the players out for a rollicking encore session of A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.

Million Dollar Quartet runs through Nov. 20 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  Tickets can be obtained by phone at (414) 273-7206, in person, or through the Marcus website here.

0 thoughts on “Growing pains of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Million Dollar Quartet”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Completely enjoyable performances, the musicians are outstanding, and whole story is held together by a very talented and believable Grant as Sam Phillips, who provides the substance to the flash. Such a treat to see and hear. I saw this musical on Broadway at the Nederlander, with some of the same cast, although Christopher Grant was in the Johnny Cash role that night (he rocked in that performance, too). The Milwaukee performance in such a bigger theater is even better.

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