Don't go to Million Dollar Quartet expecting a tribute show featuring Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis impersonators. The musician/actors in the exuberant musical perform ably in the style of the rock and roll legends, but they are not mimics.
Million Dollar Quartet celebrates the night in 1956 when a recording session for Perkins at Sam Phillip's tiny Sun Studios in Memphis turned into a historic jam session with Perkins (Lee Ferris), Cash (Derek Keeling), Lewis (Martin Kaye) and Presley (Cody Slaughter). Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant) recorded the entire evening, conversations and all, allowing the legendary event to live on for future generations.
A whopping 23 songs are presented, mostly tear-down-the-roof rockabilly, but also including spirituals and a steamy version of “Fever” by Presley's fictionalized girlfriend Dyanne (Kelly Lamont). Only two of the songs played on the actual 1956 session are included. No surprise there, we're watching a musical, after all, and the liberties taken with the song selections allow us to hear hits ranging from “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Folsom Prison Blues” to “Great Balls of Fire” to “Hound Dog.” The highlight of the night for me was the combo of Cash doing “Sixteen Tons" and Perkins singing “My Babe.” The two songs merge towards the end and the result is quite effective.
All of the music is performed live by the talented cast. Rockabilly is built on fire and fever, and the notion of polished rawness may sound ridiculous, but the musician/actors pull it off. On a number of songs, after a couple verses, the music fades back as Phillips steps forward to describe or reenact key moments between the recording icon and the four superstars, then surges back when he finishes. The technique takes a bit of getting used to, but the power of the songs are strong enough to weather the digressions.
The relationships between Phillips and the guys are interesting, with bits of drama mixed in with the powerhouse tunes. The book is far from deep, but manages to convey the friendships and tensions within the group and the pain that comes when musical sons inevitably must leave their father. There's lots of laughs too, many built around young Lewis, presented here as a hyperactive scamp. Perkins finds the brash newcomer annoying in the extreme, and the exchanges between the two are amusing.
Attendees at Wednesday's show got a special one-night-only treat when, during the encore, W. S. “Fluke” Holland, long-time drummer for Perkins and Cash and the actual drummer on the night of the real Million Dollar Quartet session, made an appearance. The Saltillo, Tenn., native shared a story about pranking Elvis and sat in on the last two songs. Quite a bonus on an already special night.