Saturday, October 15, 2011

Million Dollar Quartet

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET….great balls of fire!

Part concert, part history lesson, a lot of rock ‘n roll, and a heck of good time-- that’s MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, now on stage at the Palace Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.

The second largest entertainment center in the United States is playing host to
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Well, four performers portraying those icons of rock and roll, in a stage show that attempts to duplicate the one time that the four actually did get together for an informal rock session. The event took place in the recording studios of the legendary Sun Records on December 4, 1956.

To make the whole experience of even greater importance, this production in the Rock and Roll capital, is the first venue for the touring version of the show. Yes, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET’s trip around the country is being launched right here!

It’s fifty-five years ago, four emerging music icons, all of whom were good old Southern boys, identified and molded by Sam Phillips, were in his Memphis Sun Studios. They ad-libbed an evening of gospel, blues and rock ‘n roll music. The event was chronicled by a reporter from the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The next day the article discussing the event stated, “This quartet could sell a million.” Little did the reporter realize that though that number sounded like a lot, this quartet would go on to sell many millions, and become individual musical icons.

Whether the actions happened exactly as portrayed is not known, but the fact that there was such a jam session is a reality. A recording of the session, and a picture of the four, documented the event and became the basis for the musical with a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, and musical arrangements by Chuck Mead.

The production team was at Thursday’s press opening and was introduced by Gina Vernecci, PlayhouseSquares’ Vice President of Theatricals.

It is only right that the production started its journey here. Presley and Lewis were among our Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s charter inductees, and were soon joined by Perkins and Cash.

The touring production, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, who I worked with at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia (a suburb of DC), is right on target. He knows how to stage and inspire a cast. The production is exciting, enveloping, filled with well-timed humor and a little drama. And, of course, there is a Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.

The stage literally explodes with hit after hit, including Blue Suede Shoes, That’s All Right, Sixteen Tons, I Walk the Line, Great Balls of Fire and Party. Then, there was a curtain call which features the likes of Hound Dog, Riders in the Sky, and See You Later Alligator.

The cast is outstanding. The quartet not only sings well, but plays their own instruments, and acts with realism.

Cody Slaughter not only eerily looks like Elvis, but has the snarl, the hip swivels, the pelvis thrusts and the famous heavy eye-lidded stare. A true son of the south, Slaughter was named “Elvis Presley Enterprises’ Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist of 2011.” Appropriately, the last line heard from the stage at the conclusion of the production was, “And Elvis has left the building.”

Martin Kaye makes for the perfect undisciplined, dynamic, uber-talented pianist and singer, Jerry Lee Lewis. He is electric on stage, hardly able to contain the character’s twitching, jumping, ADHD persona.

Derek Keeling has the perfect Johnny Cash voice and sultry looks. Dressed in Cash’s signature black uniform, his deep voice, and smoldering personal underbelly, makes for a complete characterization.

Lee Ferris develops well the conflicted Perkins, whose fame was eclipsed by Presley, all the way from the King taking Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes and making it into a hit that exceeded the original author’s recording, but generally overshadowing the man known as the King of Rock-a-billie.

Christopher Ryan Grant gives a human portrayal of Sam Phillips, Kelly Lamont is fine as Presley’s girl friend of the moment, and bass player Chuck Zayas and drummer Christopher Ryan Grant, are excellent musicians who add much to the show.

Capsule judgement: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET is one of those special evenings of theatre. It’s filled with great music and fine performances that led to screaming, yelling, clapping, multi-standing ovations given by the opening night audience. Yes, Memories Are Made of This!