“Million Dollar Quartet,” through June 3, Capitol Theatre, $57.50-$42.50, 801-355-2787 or arttix.org
SALT LAKE CITY — The “Million Dollar Quartet” creative team wants audiences to forget that we are comfortably seated in a theater. The hope is that we feel as if we’re inside the tiny Sun Records recording studios alongside the musicians at an impromptu 1956 jam session.
Not only does “Million Dollar Quartet” accomplish that goal, but there’s also a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.
As any rock ’n’ roll historian will tell you, Dec. 4, 1956, is a momentous date, and fans of the up-tempo genres of rock, rockabilly and country speak of the session in hushed tones. The four most influential rock pioneers began a recording together with their mentor-producer and studio owner. The hit Broadway show titled after these legendary recordings fictionalizes the events of that session.
Maybe you might have heard songs from these musicians — Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
The session was originally scheduled to cut a follow-up to “Blue Suede Shoes” for Perkins, with newcomer Lewis at the keyboards. But Cash was there to listen in, and then Presley dropped by. Though not mentioned in this dramatization, “Cowboy” Jack Clement was engineering that day and said to himself, “I think I’d be remiss not to record this.” He did, and the rest is history — and now an evening of terrific theater.
The show becomes a dream event with the four Hall of Famers. As audiences enjoy snippets of their hit songs being performed by the actors, we see their distinctive personalities and friendly rivalries. And to make “Million Dollar Quartet” a true stage musical rather than a tribute band performance, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips introduces a few quick flashbacks to reveal the musicians' history, and he bemoans the conflict between large record labels that can reach the masses and the smaller labels that take chances on new artists.
With the slim plot and live performance of 21 songs by the talented cast of eight performers, it’s the director’s difficult task to guide the show and to rely on the their abilities to make this show a success.
Eric Shaeffer, co-founder and artistic director of the Tony-winning Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., maintains his direct involvement in the show. He was co-director of the show’s premiere at Chicago’s Apollo Theater and shepherded it to New York, where it was Tony-nominated for best musical and best book of a musical and earned the honor for the Broadway lead actor. Beyond this tour of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the show continues its successful runs in New York and Chicago.
Shaeffer continues to ensure that the evening unfolds smoothly. He was also directly involved in each of the casting decisions, and the “Million Dollar Quartet” touring performers put on a rollicking good show.
Three of the lead actors give outstanding performances as singing actors and acting singers. In the largest of the roles, Lee Ferris is Carl Perkins and Martin Kaye is Jerry Lee Lewis. Ferris and Kay bring the friendly, down-home humor to the show along with terrific performances, especially in Ferris’ “See You Later, Alligator” and Kaye’s “Great Balls of Fire.” As Johnny Cash, Derek Keeling overplays a tad the basso-profundity of the superstar’s voice, but his low-key humility is completely on target. He growls out impressive versions of "Folsom Prison Blues," “Sixteen Tons" and "Riders in the Sky.”
Cody Slaughter was voted the 2011 Ultimate Tribute Artist of Elvis impersonators in a fan poll and has all of the hip shaking and live-wire physicality of the artist down pat. His is a winning re-creation when he’s performing a song, but Slaughter struggles as an actor. He is not only wooden but looks uncomfortable on stage anytime away from the mic.
The fifth onstage singer is Kelly Lamont as a fictitious girlfriend of Elvis named Dyanne. Lamont seizes the stage with her heated rendition of the Peggy Lee standard “Fever.” Completing the cast are Christopher Ryan Grant as the studio's owner, Sam Phillips; Chuck Zayas as the bass-playing brother of Carl Perkins, Jay; and Billy Shaffer as drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland.
Paul McCartney paid tribute to the influences of a musician in the original “Million Dollar Quartet” recordings when he said, “If there were no Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles.” Also, no Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton — the list continues.
The “Million Dollar Quartet” Broadway show seamlessly combines tremendous performances of musical milestones of the era with an entertaining back story for a winning night of musical theater.