The Rolling Stones might happily have accepted the tag “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band,” but half a decade before the Stones’ founding in Britain, the fab foursome of the ’50s — Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins — gathered inside Sun Records’ Memphis recording studio for a jam session to stake an early claim on the title.
Million Dollar Quartet, named for an off-hand comment made by Sun’s visionary founder, Sam Phillips, about the gathering on Dec. 4, 1956, features some of the world’s greatest rock and roll: Blue Suede Shoes, Folsom Prison Blues, Brown Eyed Handsome Man and 18 more classics of the era, played live by the four lead actors. The cast is joined by an exceptional rhythm section featuring Chuck Zayas on bass and Billy Shaffer on drums.
The national road tour of Million Dollar Quartet has rock and rolled its way into Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts for a six-day run that ends on New Year’s Day. The jukebox musical’s story might be thinner than the 1956 model Elvis, but for pure entertainment Million Dollar Quartet is worth a million bucks.
Colin Escott, the Tony-nominated co-writer of the book (with Floyd Mutrux), has been clear from the start that Million Dollar Quartet is not meant to represent what happened that night when the foursome gathered for its one and only recorded jam.
“What we did with the show was to kind of telescope 18 months of Sun Records history into that one night,” he said in an interview.
Sure enough, most of the show’s rousing rock and roll tunes, drawn from the artists’ combined songbook and the era, were not actually played that night. Presley, Cash, Lewis and Perkins performed mostly gospel numbers during the original impromptu session. But Escott and Mutrux aim to tell each of the men’s stories via this musical, and strict cover songs of spirituals would not best represent them.
Million Dollar Quartet cleverly stitches amusing asides into its script; music buffs will immediately recognize them.
“I’ve been everywhere,” Cash (Derek Keeling) says at one point, eliciting chuckles from those who recall a hotel chain’s recent TV commercial that drew from Cash’s late-period cover of the song.
“I swear I’ll never play Vegas again,” a chagrined Elvis (Cody Slaughter) promises his former boss, Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant). We all know how that went.
As drama, though, Million Dollar Quartet is inert. Cash and Perkins have a secret they struggled to tell Phillips: They intended to leave small Sun Records for the majors. Presley already had been sold to RCA for $40,000, a fortune for the struggling Phillips who used the payout to keep Sun operating. “If I’m a fool, I’m a happy fool,” Phillips informs the audience during his narration; Grant plays to the crowd with relish.
But little of this tissue-thin drama resonates or leaves a strong emotional impression. The shoehorned plot is merely an excuse to keep Million Dollar Quartet from becoming a straight concert or impersonation show like the current Rain, a cheesy Beatles tribute that is making the rounds of theaters.
Still, refreshingly compact at about 90 minutes with no intermission, Million Dollar Quartet transcends simple impersonation.
The cast captures the essence of these famed musicians, but the performances never feel like slavish karaoke. Keeling has by far the richest, most resonant voice and his booming Cash, on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s hit Sixteen Tons and Stan Jones’ (Ghost) Riders in the Sky, is top-shelf. Slaughter’s Elvis, by comparison, is vocally thin and scratchy on such up-tempo hits as Hound Dog but warm on ballads such as Memories Are Made of This. His dancing and agile stage movements, however, are better. Lee Ferris’ oft-cranky Perkins consistently fires off tasty licks on his guitar.
Martin Kaye has the biggest shoes to fill — blue suede or not — as he follows Levi Kreis’ Tony-winning performance on Broadway as Lewis. Kaye, irrepressible as the lovable enfant terrible, gets all the script’s best lines and delivers them with brio, humor and accompanying body language. Kaye’s musicianship, as he athletically pounds the piano, would test the skills of the finest pianist.
By all means, if you go — and you should — don’t bolt after curtain call. The rockabilly quartet returns in glittering jackets for a five-song encore, ala the Mamma Mia! musical, and it’s an irresistible coda to a fun show.