Million Dollar Quartet | Fox Theatre

mdq 75It’s because of Sam Phillips that we had them all.

 

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A steady rain couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the opening night audience for Million Dollar Quartet at the Fox Theatre. In fact, since the Fox plans a complete ceiling restoration over the summer, somebody better get up there and see if it still has a roof because I think the grandpas of rock ’n’ roll may have torn it off.

This isn’t the best musical or even jukebox musical I’ve ever seen, but it’s close to the top. It’s cleverly structured so that the music of Elvis Presley (Cody Slaughter), Johnny Cash (David Elkins), Carl Perkins (James Barry), and Jerry Lee Lewis (Ben Goddard) create a background for the real story: the tale of Sam Phillips (Vince Nappo) and his precious company, Sun Records. Nappo as Phillips provides a prologue to the show that takes place on the evening of December 4, 1956, at a recording session with Perkins who hopes to replicate his earlier success with a follow up to “Blue Suede Shoes” (now more closely associated with Elvis, though Perkins wrote and performed it first). Perkins’ brother, Jay (Corey Kaiser), is on the standup bass (unless he wants to play it sideways—and he does, at times) and Billy Shaffer is Fluke, the mostly silent drummer who talks with his sticks and brushes. Perkins and Lewis don’t hit it off at first, because Lewis keeps going off on piano tangents that pull the focus from Perkins himself on the recording of his own new tune, “Matchbox.”

Goddard is a riot as Jerry Lee. He is in constant motion, whether he’s playing or not. It’s like he puts Ritalin in his RC Cola, and the drug has the opposite of its intended effect. From the second row, he resembles nothing so much as an insane Harpo Marx who not only speaks, but hollers, yelps, groans, and shakes. It almost slips into parody at times, though Goddard has to play to the balcony, too, and I expect he looks just great from there. He’s also a good comic actor. He’s not even 20, he tells us as Lewis, and he’s already had two wives, but he didn’t exactly divorce the first one before he married the second. (Rimshot.)

Soon, Cash arrives, and he is reluctant to be there because he has a secret he doesn’t want to share with Phillips. Phillips himself is gathering the guys to celebrate Johnny’s new three-year contract with Sun. At some point, Phillips steps forward individually with each artist to tell the story of how they got together. Cash had come in to audition with hymns, but Phillips sent him away and told him to come back with something that could be a hit. Cash went home and wrote “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Elvis wanted to sing like Dean Martin until Phillips dragged the blues out of him by getting him to perform Big Mama Thornton’s “That’s All Right Mama.” Once an auto body shop, Sun’s one-room studio quickly became an incubator for the birth of a new kind of sound that came from black musicians in honkytonks, but ended up in millions of teenagers’ bedrooms and basements. The songs were covered by white artists of the era because nobody thought white kids would buy “race music.” Of course, that wasn’t true, but record producers of the 1950s didn’t know it.

Phillips sold Elvis’s contract to RCA the previous year for the vast sum of $40,000, and he doesn’t regret it, because it allowed him to save Sun. He says at one point he’d rather have a record that sold 100 copies by his own talent than a million-seller in a corporate job, though he is considering an offer himself. By the end of ’56, Elvis has already appeared on Ed Sullivan (performing “Blue Suede Shoes,” much to Perkins’ dismay), and the movie Love Me Tender had been released just weeks before. He misses the atmosphere at Sun, but he does understand why his boss had to let him go and bears no grudge. Sam has invited him to the session and Elvis was happy to attend with his girlfriend at the time, Dyanne (Kelly Lamont), who also does some singing. Nobody knew that this would end up being a once-in-a-lifetime experience, literally, and Nappo’s fine performance anchors the whole show. Another actor is stepping into the role halfway through the run.

Each actor/singer/musician stands out here. Slaughter, who will also be replaced during the stand at the Fox, resembles and sounds so much like Elvis, it’s spooky. Elkins doesn’t resemble Cash, who at 24 already looked weathered, but he has the shy persona and amazing bass voice down pat. Barry can perform Perkins’ guitar licks and actually sings better than his character did. And Goddard? Well, there’s just no way to describe him any more than I already have, but you’ve got to see it to believe it. Recordings were made of the actual session, but the equipment wasn’t sophisticated enough back then to give us what we have here. In an interview, Elkins told me that the group isn’t trying to do impressions, like an Elvis impersonator does, but rather to capture the essence of each performer. They do. And make sure you don’t run out after the cast leaves the stage, because they will return for a spectacular curtain call/encore.

And you really shouldn’t miss this show. Each song is a gem, except when Lamont gets stuck with “I Hear You Knocking” on a mic that must not have been adjusted, because she sounded loud, pitchy, and muddled. I’m sure it wasn’t her fault, because earlier she gave us a sultry rendition of “Fever” that heated up the whole room. My favorite parts are when the four harmonize, especially on “Peace in the Valley,” a beloved hymn in the country tradition in which they all grew up. These kids had all been dirt poor, and Sam Phillips cleaned them up and gave them careers that were both seminal and legendary.

Without Perkins, the Beatles would have been very different. Without the “Killer” (Jerry Lee), rock ’n’ roll would have been way less joyous and fun. Without Cash, the respect that was eventually accorded country music, its roots in the sacred and its potential for crossover, wouldn’t have happened as it did—if it happened at all. Without Elvis? Well, who can imagine a world without Elvis? And it’s because of Sam Phillips that we had them all. | Andrea Braun

Million Dollar Quartet is at the Fox Theatre through May 5, 2013.

Production Credits: Director – Eric Schaeffer; Book – Collin Escott and Floyd Mutrux; Scenic design – Derek McLane; Lighting Design – Howell Binkley; Costume Design – Jane Greenwood; Sound design – Kai Harada; Musical Arrangements and Supervision – Chuck Mead

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