Story: The time is December 4, 1956 and the place is Sun Records in Memphis. The tiny, unremarkable building once housed an auto parts store, as owner and producer Samuel Cornelius Phillips reminds himself and visitors, before Sam turned it into a tiny recording studio a couple of years earlier.
Sam Phillips said he “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket,” but that he had a knack for discovering talent in young, unproven musicians. He said he’d rather sell 100 records by someone he discovered than a million by a star backed by a big company such as RCA or Columbia Records. Now, about a year after he sold the contract of one of his protégées, Elvis Presley, to keep his studio afloat, Sam is on hand while one of his big discoveries, Carl Perkins, is recording some tunes with his back-up band.
Phillips invites a fledgling piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis to join in, because Sam sees the same ‘star power’ in the poor kid from Louisiana that he saw in those other poverty-stricken lads from the South, namely Elvis, Perkins and a young man from Arkansas named JR Cash, whom Sam calls Johnny.
Sam has called Cash to come on by the studio to surprise him with a new, three-year contract. When Elvis unexpectedly drops by with his girlfriend and the lads begin an impromptu jam session, Phillips knows that something special is happening at Sun Records that day.
Highlights: That day in 1956 marked the first and only time that rock ‘n’ roll pioneers Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis performed together. A story the next day in the Memphis Press-Simitar noted the playing of “the million-dollar quartet,” with a photo to prove that it occurred. Of course, Lewis was unknown and the other three just starting to make names for themselves, but it all took place at Sun Records in Memphis.
The jukebox musical, Million Dollar Quartet, first was presented in Florida in 2006, then played in Washington in 2007 and Chicago, where it opened in 2008 and is still running, before hitting Broadway in 2010. A national tour began in 2011 that now has reached The Fox Theatre.
The book is thin and the show is short at about 90 minutes with no intermission. The flair and fun, however, reverberate throughout the theater and linger in the mind and spirit, bringing the rockabilly sound of the era back with a rush.
Other Info: Authors Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux wrote the slender script based on an original concept by Mutrux, who also directed the original production. There’s not much there, and some elements, such as changing Elvis’ girlfriend from a real-life dancer to a singer for this show, are adapted for the sake of convenience and the slimmest of dramatic conflicts. Even the numbers presented with exhilaration and unabashed affection often are more hit, pop and folk tunes of the ‘50s than real rock standards.
That matters little, though, when viewing Million Dollar Quartet. At its best, the show is a valentine to the naivete and raw talent of young musicians who were encouraged by Phillips to bring out their personalities in their recordings as much as musical abilities. The spirited performers who comprise the quartet at The Fox, particularly Cody Slaughter as Elvis and David Elkins as Cash, not only emulate the vocal notoriety of their characters but demonstrate an uncanny knack to look the parts as well.
Slaughter is sensational capturing the purity of Elvis’ voice as well as his loose-limbed enthusiasm, while Elkins drops his bass voice into the basement to hit those really, really low notes that Cash favored. Ben Goddard is a marvel of mayhem as that force of nature known as Jerry Lee Lewis, alternately assaulting and caressing the piano with Lewis’ signature manic flair.
James Barry portrays Perkins, ostensibly the least known of the group, as somewhat contentious and coarse, albeit as a young guy who learned to play the guitar from an older black man who spent time in the fields with the lad when they both were itinerant sharecroppers. Barry relates a poignant story about that relationship, just as he recalls, after a spirited rendition of Chuck Berry’s Brown-Eyed Handsome Man, that Berry had to change the title from Brown-Skinned to Brown-Eyed at the insistence of his producers.
With its homage to the black musicians who actually devised the style known as rock ‘n’ roll, Million Dollar Quartet is as much a musical history lesson as a rollicking good time. Such standards as Memories Are Made of This, Fever, I Hear You Knocking and Sixteen Tons are interspersed with hits by the lads, including Great Balls of Fire, Folsom Prison Blues, Blue Suede Shoes and That’s All Right. Each of them is rendered with love and care, sometimes tender, other time raucous.
Eric Schaeffer directs in straightforward fashion, and Chuck Mead’s supervision and musical arrangements capture the essence of the era’s music. Tom Watson’s hair and wig design is most flamboyant in the wild mane Ben Goodard sports as Lewis, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes are a good fit, from the casually sporty duds of Elvis and Cash’s notable black attire to the ragtag look of Lewis. Howell Binkley’s lighting effectively conveys the coziness and cloistered effect of the tiny Sun Studios so meticulously realized in Derek McLane’s set.
The cast also includes Vince Nappo as Phillips, Kelly Lamont as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne -- who belts out some tunes on her own with sass and pizzazz -- , Corey Kaiser as Carl’s bass-playing brother Jay and Billy Shaffer as Fluke the drummer.
If you love early rock ‘n’ roll or the style known as rockabilly, or just hearing hit tunes of the times done in foot-tapping, finger-snapping, down-home style, cruise on down to The Fox for Million Dollar Quartet. You’ll be standing at its conclusion and shouting for more.
Musical: Million Dollar Quartet
Group: Touring Company
Venue: Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Blvd.
Dates: Through May 5
Tickets: $15-$66; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Paul Natkin