What a novelty–a musical that’s literally about the music! In these ’post Andrew Lloyd Webber” days of seismically over sized glitz and special effects, it’s often easy for a show to get side tracked. Yet “Million Dollar Quartet” is that rare and genuine gem of a show at whose core are some of the best, most influential rock-and-roll classics of the last century–and it’s making its Southern California debut at Orange County’s landmark “Segerstrom Center For The Arts” April 24 through May 6 2012.
Dramatizing an authentic event that occurred on December 4, 1956, when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis (then a newcomer to the music-scene) joined Carl Perkins and his band at the recording studio of Sun Records in Memphis, the result was what many historians call the greatest jam session of all time. While this may not be a musical in the traditional ‘song and dance” sense, instead it’s more like a play with music–and oh, what music it is! With a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux (adapted largely, by all reports, from transcripts of that actual session,) the emphasis isn’t so much on dialogue as it is on the characters and their performances. These are younger incarnations of the legends we’ve come to know and this was a time in their lives when the music (–not necessarily the fame it brought or would bring) was at the forefront of their motivations, as was creating it with others possessing the same unique abilities, desire for innovation and passion!
Presenting a buoyant, almost non-stop hit parade that will knock you right out of your ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ “Million Dollar Quartet” features a treasure trove of golden-oldies spanning such early Rock-A-Billy, Rhythm-And-Blues, and good old-fashioned Inspirational standards like “Hound Dog“, “Peace In The Valley”, “Great Balls of Fire”, “Folsom Prison Blues,” and more. Listen to any one them here and just dare yourself NOT to sing along! Then again, to simply regard this as just another “Juke Box Musical” would be doing it a significant disservice. In addition to the boppin‘ ballads and the bodacious beat, the uncanny portrayals make this one so talked about (as it will continue to be for seasons to come!) Not only do the actors bear the challenge of creating credible versions of these iconic musicians when they were more or less just starting out, they also have to sing with exacting similarity–and play their own instruments while doing it. (This is definitely NOT an easy show to cast!) Happily, the supremely talented group starring in this national tour live up to these tasks and then some! Another remarkable (–astonishing, really) element of this show involves the sumptuous way each one’s voice blends with the others, creating an honest feel of what it must have been like to hear these awesome rock pioneers at work. Although many of the songs featured (including most of the more readily familiar ones) were not actually performed during that momentous afternoon, among those that were, the stirring, “Down By The Riverside”–performed nearly a cappela- is bound to take your breath away.
Christopher Ryan Grant is renowned Impresario Sam Phillips, the man regarded as the “Father Of Rock-And-Roll“ for having ‘discovered’ all four men while heading Sun Records. Not so much a narrator as he is a scene-setter, Phillips pops into freezes in the action, addressing the audience directly with little comments and bits of info. regarding both the background and future outcomes of various tunes the group is showcasing. From him we quickly learn that at this point, Elvis has tasted fame but isn’t quite “The King” just yet (more like “The Crown Prince”.) With everything still a new and exciting adventure, he remains enough of a wide-eyed country boy not be jaded or to take his recent achievements for granted, and this is how Cody Slaughter plays him. Even women, including Presley’s girlfriend of the moment, Dyanne, (whom he stops by with after a gig in Las Vegas,) are still something of an exhilarating mystery. This in turn makes him extra likable and relatable to us. (Word is that throughout the tour, giddy screams from the audience are not uncommon whenever Slaughter sings or just flashes that big, boyish grin!)
Also a wonder to behold is Martin Kaye as the shaggy-haired, wise-cracking, wild-child, Jerry Lee Lewis. As expected, there‘s ‘a whole lotta shakin‘ going on‘ whenever he takes center stage, but its apparent there was a ‘whole lot of studying going on’ too–he has “The Killer’s” every move down to unbelievable perfection. Likewise, another impressive illusion is created by Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash. Early on, Phillips divulges that he shortsightedly sold Presley’s contract to RCA, so in order to successfully finance the launch of young Jerry Lee’s career, he needs Johnny–his big Country-Western star–to agree to a three year extension to his contract with Sun. This provides the reason for Cash’s ‘dropping by’ on the afternoon in question, which itself gives license for him to offer up some rousing renditions of the “Man In Black‘s” own signature chart-toppers, including “Ghost Riders In The Sky” and “I Walk The Line”. Rounding out the titular foursome is Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins, whose recording session serves as the basis for all the goings-on. With him are members of his band–on Bass, Chuck Zayas as Carl’s brother Jay and Billy Shaffer as their Drummer, “Fluke” (so named due to his penchant for using this more tactful term in place of another popular ’F-word”.)
The most obvious departure from historical fact involves Dyanne, a young singer whom Elvis is smitten with, played by buxom and beautiful Kelly Lamont. In reality, Presley did bring a showgirl named Marilyn to the session; however for the purposes of a stage musical, reinventing her as an aspiring songstress herself allows for the inclusion of several songs that these fellas wouldn’t likely have sung. Among them are sultry interpretations of “I Hear You Knockin’” and Peggy Lee’s immortal “Fever”. Given Lamont’s amazingly expressive voice, this lady more than holds her own against the boys when it comes to delivering a marvelous, memorable tune.
Together, as in one number they themselves remind us, “Some people like to rock, some people like to roll, but movin’ and groovin’s gonna satisfy their souls!” (–audiences won’t be complaining either!) So it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready now “Go Cat Go“–straight to the Segerstrom Center For The Arts Box Office and get tickets to this unforgettable production! Segerstrom Center For The Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA, and show-times are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 2:00 and 7:30 p.m., with Sunday performances at 1:00 pm and 6:30 p.m.. Starting as low as $20.00, tickets are available either online at: www. SCFTA.org, in person between the hours of 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts Box Office located at: 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92626 ; or by calling (714) 556-2787 (TTY number is 714 556-2746) Special Group Rates can be obtained by calling Group Sales at (714) 755-0236 . “Who Do You Love?” Perkins asks melodically shortly after the opening; our answer: “This Show–that’s for sure!”
Photos By Jeremy Daniel; Special Thanks to the Media Relations Staff of The Segerstrom Center For The Arts, Type A Marketing and to the cast and crew of the National Touring Company Of “Million Dollar Quartet” for making this story possible.