In early December 1956, four musicians gathered by chance at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn.
As they jammed, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis couldn’t have known that nearly 60 years later, people would be reliving that day.
With “Million Dollar Quartet,” the jukebox musical that spent a year on Broadway and is now touring nationwide, fans of 1950s rock, country and rockabilly can enjoy a lively and entertaining trip back in time. The show runs through Sunday at the INB Performing Arts Center.
The story is told through the lens of Sam Phillips (Vince Nappo), the man who owned Sun Records and who played a huge role in not only the careers of these pioneering artists, but in rock ’n’ roll as a whole.
Inspired by the events of that all-star jam session, “Million Dollar Quartet” kicks off with Carl Perkins (James Barry) working to follow up his big hit “Blue Suede Shoes.” Phillips, thinking Perkins’ song “Matchbox” needs a little oomph, brings in a new piano player, Jerry Lee Lewis (Scott Countryman), whose opinion of himself is outmatched only by his appetite for pretty women. Perkins and Lewis clash but make some fabulous music together.
Johnny Cash (Scott Moreau) comes in, and Phillips hopes to surprise him with a three-year contract extension. Cash has his own surprise for Phillips, one he dreads sharing.
When Elvis Presley (Cody Slaughter) stops in, our quartet is complete. With him is a girlfriend, Dyanne (Kelly Lamont), whose only role, it seems, is to sing well and give Jerry Lee someone to ogle. Still, Lamont is a lovely singer, and she does her best with what little material there is for her.
Because this is a guy show. And all these guys have some serious chops.
Only Slaughter really resembles the man he portrays. In fact, he’s a dead ringer for young Presley and actually works as an Elvis tribute artist when he’s not on tour. He performs Presley’s signature moves so realistically, it’s like watching the real thing. That he can sing “That’s All Right Mama” and sound like the King of Rock ’n’ Roll is remarkable.
While the other lead actors don’t look like their counterparts, they all do an outstanding job of getting the essence and mannerisms of their characters just right. Countryman bangs on his piano with Lewis’ characteristic abandon. As Perkins, Barry shows some serious skill on the electric guitar. Moreau holds Cash’s guitar up high on his chest and perfects Cash’s deep voice on “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” When he walked up to the mic and said, “Hello. My name is Johnny Cash,” the audience Thursday erupted with applause.
The plotline is slight. It’s a jukebox musical, after all, not Chekhov. The only real attempt at pathos is when Phillips says wistfully he wishes these men he’d helped create would have had happier lives.
There’s plenty of humor, though. A young Presley announces that he’ll never play Las Vegas again. Cash laments Sun’s business struggles by saying, “If you really want to stop the spread of Communism, you should have Sun distribute it.” And Dyanne chides Lewis for his oversized ego with a quick putdown: “You’re kind of bashful, aren’t you?”
One technical issue from Thursday: the sound. The balance on the mics was slightly off, so that on the rocking numbers – and there are a lot of rocking numbers – the vocals were overpowered. Hopefully they’ll get that cleared up.
Because with such fantastic music and engaging performances, it would be a shame to miss a minute.
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