Review: “Million Dollar Quartet” Book by Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux. Featuring the music of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. With Lee Ferris, Martin Kaye, Derek Keeling, Cody Slaughter, Kelly Lamont, Billy Shaffer, Chuck Zayas and Christopher Ryan Grant. Now through May 20, 2012 at The Paramount.
I’m not a huge fan of the “Jukebox Musical”…stringing together some already established hit songs from a bygone era and wrapping it up in a flimsy plot isn’t very creative and it’s frequently a bit frustrating. Usually the story gets in the way of the great songs you want to hear and it seems like it would be a whole lot easier to just do a damn concert than try to turn it into a more traditional theater piece. The Jukebox Musical is a theatrical “taint”…it’s not quite a musical and it’s not quite a concert. Yet, if done correctly, it can be a helluva lot of fun.
“Million Dollar Quartet” the current juke musical on stage at The Paramount now through Sunday, features the music of four superstars: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins and the real life event that united them all together in the same recording studio on December 4, 1956. That recording studio was at the famed Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee and the event was orchestrated by Sun founder, and rock n roll producing pioneer, Sam Phillips. It was a magical night, and despite a few clunky moments in the structure and a tendency to play up some of the rock n roll soap opera elements of the story, “Million Dollar Quartet” is a juke musical that does manage to be a helluva lot of fun. Naturally, a large amount of the fun can be attributed to the fantastic line-up of songs presented: Blue Suede Shoes, Folsom Prison Blues, See You Later Alligator, Hound Dog, Great Balls of Fire, I Walk The Line, Long Tall Sally, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On…hit after hit after hit. But songs are only as good as the performers, and the “Million Dollar Quartet” has an amazing line-up of young performers singing those songs and they’re the ones who really sell the show.
Really, the only weak spot in “Quartet” is the book and while it’s not a brilliant piece of writing, it’s passable. The story really revolves around Sam Phillips and his pride at creating these superstars and his hope to keep the legacy going forever. The primary tension in “Quartet” is whether Phillips will accept an offer to join Elvis at RCA, or keep Sun Studios and continue to make it thrive by renewing Johnny Cash’s contract for another three years. But both Cash and Carl Perkins have different visions of their future, and they don’t include Sun Records. “Million Dollar Quartet” is based on true events, but much of the dramatic structure of this show didn’t necessarily happen on the actual day of the event. It’s dramatic license and it could be argued you need dramatic tension in the plot, but it all feels a bit contrived and hokey. The problem with plot in a jukebox musical is that it gets in the way of the hit songs and the constant interruptions to inject a bit of backstory or drama, end up being frustrating to the audience. Just SING, Dammit!
And, it’s when the four young actors sing, that the whole thing becomes worthwhile and very enjoyable. Cody Slaughter makes for a believable and very appealing young Elvis, at the height of his pretty, teen idol popularity and displays not only a strong voice, but superb skills at hip swiveling, pelvic thrusting, and lip curling. He’s Elvis at his Tiger Beat sexiest. He’s matched by the equally sexy, but in a more adult, whisky soaked way, performance of Johnny Cash by Derek Keeling who nails not only Mr. Cash’s bass/baritone voice, but the essential performing style of the “man in black”. (And, his awesomely sexy voice is HAWT as hell!)
Lee Ferris was also excellent as the king of rockabilly, Carl Perkins and while his performing skills were exceptionally strong, he was equally at home conveying the bitterness of Perkins, still smarting after Elvis earned glory with the Perkins’ song “Blue Suede Shoes”. He also made a great foil to the comedic antics of Martin Kaye as “The Killer” Jerry Lee Lewis, the resident wild child of the group. Mr. Kaye quickly become an audience favorite, not only for his mad piano skills and singing, but for the lightening whip timing of his sassy comebacks to the other characters. Levi Kreis originated this role, when “Million Dollar Quartet” had its original run at The Village Theatre in 2007 and went on to reprise that role on Broadway earning the only Tony Award given to “Quartet”…it’s easy to see why. Jerry Lee Lewis is the most interesting character on the stage, and the actor who plays him successfully is amply rewarded by audience approval. It’s a terrific performance from Mr. Kaye and the entire quartet.
The quartet are also strongly supported by Christopher Ryan Grant’s Sam Phillips, the narrative glue that holds this show together…Mr. Grant doesn’t get a chance to perform musically until the curtain call, but dramatically he’s a strong asset to the team. As the only major speaking role in the show, and as the “Token” woman, “Dyanne”, Kelly Lamont was very effective as the sympathetic Elvis girlfriend and feminine presence on the stage. She also does a nice job belting out two classic songs of the period, “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking”. (It should also be noted that “Dyanne” is a heavily fictionalized version of the real Elvis girlfriend in attendance on the day of the actual event, who was not a singer.)
And, they really didn’t get any lines, but Chuck Zayas as the bass player (and brother to Carl Perkins) and Billy Shaffer as the drummer “Fluke” were both superb musicians and integral parts of the production. (The audience at opening night of “Million Dollar Quartet” on Tuesday, also had the extra treat that the REAL Fluke, drummer W.S. Holland was in the audience that night and received a huge ovation when introduced from the stage by Christopher Ryan Grant during the curtain call.)
“Million Dollar Quartet” features a gorgeous set replicating the Sun Studio and designed by Derek McLane and some very snazzy period costumes by Jane Greenwood. And, director Eric Schaeffer keeps everything moving along at a brisk pace…though you should be aware that “Million Dollar Quartet” is presented without an intermission. With the curtain call and the big concert finish, the show ends up being nearly two hours long. The weak bladdered should refrain from drinking prior to the show.
Who’s this for? Fans of the Quartet and great classic rock n roll music in general. I sat next to a young and very bored twink who judging by his frequent sighs and anemic golf claps, didn’t enjoy the show…meanwhile, local radio dj and ex-Partidge Family member Danny Bonaduce, who was sitting right in front of me, was apparently having a grand ole time. You don’t have to be middle aged to enjoy this music…but, you do have to have the good taste to love the music of Elvis, Johnny, Jerry Lee and Carl and the terrific performances of this great cast.