Million Dollar Quartet at the State Theatre

March 27, 2012
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Cody Slaughter, Martin Kaye, Lee Ferris and Derek Keeling in Million Dollar Quartet. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I did a scientific analysis of the audience at Million Dollar Quartet (at the State Theatre, through April 1) (I looked around).  I immediately perceived that a person with the Rogaine concession would clean up.  The show seems geared largely to Baby Boomers, gray-haired 50 and 60-somethings, a-boppin’ and a-rockin’ to some truly dyno-mite music, indelible songs, mainstays of the culture, all originally recorded at Memphis’s Sun Studios in the distant 1950s.

The show celebrates one memorable session (December 4, 1956) when Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash came to Sun to help Carl Perkins record a song.  In reality, they only worked on a single tune (Perkins’s wonderful “Matchbox”) and Cash left early.  In Million Dollar Quartet, they sing the astonishing Sun songbook: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “See You Later, Alligator,” “Hound Dog,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”  To name but a few.

The great meister Sam Phillips offers up some hokey narration: “I remember when a truck driver, named Presley, came to ask me for an audition.”  And: “I just signed a weird young man from Texas.  Roy something.  Orbison, that’s it.”  There is some moderately annoying story material, having to do with Perkins and Cash having signed with major labels, and Phillips dealing with a lucrative offer from RCA.  The whole enterprise has a PBS feel to it; indeed, I was a little surprised that Don Shelby didn’t come out to solicit contributions.

Still, the stories and the flashbacks don’t detract from the fab songs, which are presented with style and toe-tapping gusto by a first rate cast.  Derek Keeling captures Cash’s understated basso profundo presence (“Hi.  I’m Johnny Cash.”)  As Elvis, Cody Slaughter slinks and sashays and sings with genuine Presley-esque authority.  These men serve up spot-on performances.  Great singers.

Ah, but for genuine show-carrying musicianship, one has to turn to Lee Ferris who captures the volatile Carl Perkins perfectly – and plays a fabulous guitar.  And to Martin Kaye, who portrays Lewis’s strutting peacock ego and also plays great piano.  These two are, in my opinion, the stars of Million Dollar Quartet.  They are provided with terrific support by basser Chuck Zayas and drummist Billy Shaffer.

Rounding out the cast is Kelly Lamont who as Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne sings a couple of outstanding torch tunes (“Fever,” and “I Hear You Knocking”) and provides excellent backup on many others.  Is there any historical basis for Dyanne?  I don’t know (and Presley had as many girlfriends as there are stars in the sky).  But Lamont provides the show with much needed feminine presence.

I should mention that for the Tuesday performance that I attended, Sam Phillips was played by the understudy, Scott Moreau.  Mr. Moreau’s work was excellent.  I’m not sure whether he will be playing the role in upcoming performances.

Is Million Dollar Quartet great theater?  It is not.  But does it serve up some unbelievably brilliant songs with verve and power?  You bet.  It’s a shame the audience was so… mature.  Everyone, young and old, needs to hear these masterpieces.

For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.

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