Theater review: Million Dollar Quartet at Capitol
We all need to listen to more Carl Perkins.
That’s just one lesson learned opening night of the Tony-winning hit musical Million Dollar Quartet, a look at one of the most magical nights in rock and roll history, when four legends-in-the-making descended on Memphis’ Sun Records studio for an impromptu jam session a few weeks before Christmas in 1956.
If Million Dollar Quartet was nothing more than a musical recreation of the songs played that night by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, the show would definitely be worth seeing. The quality of those artists’ early work is undeniable, and made the 90-minute show fly by in a blaze of Perkins’ rockabilly guitar licks, Lewis’ pumping piano, Cash’s deep, rootsy croon and Presley’s swivel-hipped performance style. Simply put, Million Dollar Quartet is one of the best concerts you can see this year, thanks to the actor/musicians who inhabit those roles.
The pleasant surprise, though, is the story that weaves through the 23 songs. Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant) has already “sold” Elvis (Cody Slaughter) to RCA Records to keep Sun afloat. He’s hoping Perkins (Lee Ferris) can come up with another hit to match “Blue Suede Shoes,” he’s about to take a gamble on the brash Louisiana firebrand Lewis (Martin Kaye), and unbeknownst to him, Cash (Derek Keeling) is considering leaving Sun Records for a new deal with Columbia Records. At the same time, RCA is offering Phillips a deal to give up Sun and go work with Elvis again in New York.
The label drama plays out through several asides, with Phillips filling the audience in on the individual artists’ histories, how they came to Sun and what he did for them, and what they did for the label. You also have some personal beefs among the musicians that come back to life when they join up at the studio. Perkins is jealous of Presley’s success, and is particularly angry that Elvis performed “Blue Suede Shoes” on the Ed Sullivan Show while Perkins was laid up in a hospital following a car accident, causing people to believe Perkins covered Elvis’ tune, rather than the other way around. Cash is angry that Phillips wouldn’t release an album of his gospel music, and Lewis is anxious for the opportunity to make his first hit for Sun–an opportunity he thinks the other fellows blew.
As in real life, the tensions subside through the musicians’ shared affection for what they built at Phillips’ Memphis studio, and they ended up playing a mix of their familiar hits and old spirituals while an engineer let the tape roll. Million Dollar Quartet captures the magic of music history being made–without these musicians, rock and roll, country and rockabilly wouldn’t sound the way they do now, 56 years later.
The performances are outstanding throughout, particularly Ferris as Perkins, tearing through songs with an energy that makes you want to hear more, and soon. Same goes for Kaye as Lewis; his piano-playing was somewhat unhinged and always appealing, just like the real Killer. Slaughter’s stage moves as Elvis were awe-inspiring at times, his dancing seeming to defy gravity. Keeling’s voice as Cash was uncanny, the deep growl on “I Walk the Line” a dead ringer for the real thing. Grant’s Sam Phillips is the glue that holds the show together, and Kelly Lamont delivers a nice turn as Elvis’ then-girlfriend, even singing “Fever” to great effect.
As a rock and roll history lesson, or simply a rousing musical journey, Million Dollar Quartet delivers in spades. Consider a trip to Capitol Theatre during the show’s brief run in Salt Lake City.
At the very least, go grab some Carl Perkins on iTunes. It’ll do you good.
Million Dollar Quartet runs at Capitol Theatre through Sunday, June 3. Tickets range from $35 to $57.50, and are available via ArtTix outlets.