Review by Greg Haymes
There’s a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on at Proctors this week as the national touring company of “Million Dollar Quartet” shakes, rattles and rolls across the stage with a vibrant blast of old-school rock & roll, boogie woogie, country, rockabilly and yes, gospel music, too.
The show takes its name and inspiration from the one and only recorded meeting of four American music giants – Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley – at an impromptu jam session on a December night in 1956 at Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Studios in Memphis.
“Million Dollar Quartet” doesn’t adhere strictly to the music from the jam. In fact, while the musical features 22 songs, only two of them – the traditional gospel song “Down by the Riverside” and Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” – were actually performed at the session.
Which is just fine. The show isn’t – and doesn’t pretend to be – a documentary, and in this case, artistic license is almost required for both dramatic purposes as well as audience satisfaction. I mean, really, if you’re going to see a musical about Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl and Johnny, you pretty much expect to hear such signature songs as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Matchbox” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” And that’s what you get.
The primary foursome in the cast does a fine job, with David Elkins as Cash as a highlight, matching the Man in Black’s towering stature as well as his booming baritone/bass voice. Billy Woodward nails the hip-swivel, the voice and the aw-shucks demeanor of young Elvis, while Ben Goddard takes it waaay over the top as the piano-pounding Killer, providing the comic relief and emerging as a clear an audience favorite. James Barry wasn’t as successful at portraying Perkins dramatically, but musically he was the cornerstone of the ensemble, handling all of the lead guitar chores.
And, yes, the actors played their instruments. No backing tracks, no band in the orchestra pit. It was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get performance, and the opening night crowd on Tuesday got plenty of great music, despite a medical emergency in the crowd which stopped the show cold just three songs from the finale.
While the recording stars are the obvious focus musically, the show – created by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux – actually serves as something of a love letter to Sam Phillips, the head of Sun Studios and Sun Records, who discovered and nurtured these superstar talents and others – from Howlin’ Wolf to Roy Orbison – long before they were stars. Vince Nappo is excellent as Phillips, capturing both Phillips’ creative drive and his stubborn demeanor, while also acting as the narrator of the show and directly addressing the audience.
As Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne, Kelly Lamont brings plenty of sizzle, sass and sex appeal – especially during “Fever” – but her shrill rendition of “I Hear You Knocking” was the low musical point of the show.
Kudos must go out to Corey Kaiser, however, who was absolutely rock solid as bassist Jay Perkins all throughout the evening in tandem with drummer Billy Shaffer as W.S. “Fluke” Holland. And when Kaiser was allowed the brief opportunity to solo, he made the most of it – musically as well as with his exciting showmanship.
Unfortunately, the ending – a mini-concert with each of the four stepping into the spotlight for a signature song – is superfluous, a glitzy, be-sequined, fogged-up modern-day arena rock coda that runs counter to the bang-it-out jam session vibe that the show crafts so well.
Leave all that to the Elvis impersonators, please…