“My mom would looooooove this show!” crooned my seatmate. I see her point: My parents are huge fans of Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia!, and Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story. Truth be told, so am I. As far as jukebox musicals go, these are the golden standard: shows that cull from a catalogue of hits designed to evoke feelings of nostalgia yet still possessive of storylines that are coherent, entertaining, and at least mildly intriguing. Million Dollar Quartet, a fictionalized retelling of the December day in 1956 when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis jammed together at Sun Records’ smallMemphis studio, showcases the Golden Oldies with abandon. The only problem is that the time between songs is not nearly as compelling.
Sam Phillips—Sun’s founder, owner, and greatest champion—has faced down financial ruin and is contemplating folding into RCA Records so he can return to working with his greatest discovery, Elvis Presley. He’s hosting a recording session for Carl Perkins, the bitter fading star who is looking to surpass his previous hit, “Blue Suede Shoes,” and reclaim gold record status. Accompanying him on piano is brash upstart Jerry Lee Lewis, a floppy-haired buffoon with a fiery Southern accent and electric fingers (Chuck Zayas and Billy Shaffer round out the onstage band on bass and percussion, respectively). Elvis and Johnny Cash each drop by the studio, setting in motion a rumored afternoon of rock ‘n’ roll history.
And that’s about it. Book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux try to drum up tension with the revelations that Johnny and Carl are gearing up to leave for Columbia Records, and that Sam (Christopher Ryan Grant) is toying with the idea of closing up shop and moving to New York, but when it really comes down to it the plot is an inconvenient obstacle to the real star: the eerily spot-on performances by the show’s four stars.
As irrepressible Jerry Lee, the fireball on the rise, British actor Martin Kaye is a revelation. He’s constant motion, unstoppable innuendo, and perfect comic timing with the added bonus of out-of-this-world piano skills. Cody Slaughter, the reigning Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist, is all pouty lips and rubber hips, seducing both Dyanne (his girlfriend of the moment, played by Kelly Lamont) and the female members of the audience (congratulations if you’re seated in the front row.) His voice might not slip into the smooth, velvety realm of the real Elvis’s, but his performance does much to mask the shortcoming. As Carl, Lee Ferris alternates between irritated and downright angry, yet he still wails on the guitar and brings down the house with his tunes. But it’s Derek Keeling, another alumnus of the reality TV casting show “Grease: You’re the One That I Want!” who strides away with the show. As The Man in Black, his rumbling voice and mix of confidence and bashfulness brings gravitas to the role. I found myself waiting with baited breath for the next time he would stroll up to the microphone and swing his guitar around to playing position.
Yes, as the pre-show announcement informs us, these boys are really playing. Rather than a gimmick, á la the Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd or Company, instrument skills are integral to the believability of these roles. In fact, the final twenty minutes of the show are a full-on concert, starting with “Hound Dog” and escalating to a frenetic “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” It’s so satisfying that it might prompt you to forget the previous 90 minutes of muddled, plodding storytelling. “Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins” are displayed prominently above the musical’s title—it’s these icons that the people come to see, and the show would do well to remember that.
Photo: Joan Marcus