What we missed was the birth of rock courtesy of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Our dads watched it all from the comfort of their easy chairs.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is the next best thing to seeing them on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
The touring musical, now playing at The Buell Theatre in Denver through March 9, 2014 before moving on to Cedar Falls, Iowa, South Bend, Ind. and Davenport, Iowa, brings one magical night to swingin’ life.
This jukebox musical is spiked by history. On Dec. 6, 1956, those four musicians gathered at Sun Records Studio in Memphis, the kind of event that sounds too good to be true. It happened all the same, although “Million Dollar Quartet” takes plenty of creative liberties with that jam session.
Timelines are condensed for our consideration. Exchanges that likely never happened are trotted out for our approval. And the appearance of Presley’s then gal-pal (Kelly Lamont) adds one more incredible voice to the blend.
“Quartet” teases cultural issues swirling around the meeting, like Presley tapping into a musical mojo previously explored by black artists. We’re also told about rock’s revolutionary appeal, a primal scream to be heard for decades to come.
That subtext that gets bludgeoned by the crush of songs. But oh, those songs! “Great Balls of Fire.” “Hound Dog.” “Whole Lotta Shaking Going On.” “Ring of Fire.” “That’s All Right.”
The show’s key players, all seasoned musicians who play as if they’ve been jamming together for years, inhabit their parts without getting lost in their iconic roles. It’s hard to pick a standout in the foursome. Lee Ferris’ duplicates Perkins’ gait and guitar riffs, and his comic timing is keen while battling that upstart behind the piano.
John Countryman plays up Lewis’ cartoonish side, from his optimism to that curious marital history. Scott Moreau’s Cash, the patriarch of the unlikely Quartet, has the booming baritone down so cold you could wake him from a nap and he’d nail “Ring of Fire.”
Cody Ray Slaughter doesn’t shy from Presley’s signature moves. He does ’em all, and the effect is startling. In an age when your second cousin likely works the Elvis impersonator circuit that’s impressive.
Vince Nappo’s Sam Phillips, the musical guru who assembled those raw talents in the first place, isn’t the compelling figure he’s meant to be. Nappo’s lines can be difficult to make out, and the character as written doesn’t resonate as required. “Million Dollar Quartet” is as shiny as the jackets worn during the rollicking encore. Too bad that razzle dazzle can’t hide the show’s most punishing flaw.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is first and foremost a visceral experience, and it would be a grand experiment for fathers to take their children to the show. Will the lads bounce in their seats like teenyboppers of yore? Or, would they pine for that auto tune sound seeping from their iPods? My money is squarely on Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis.
(Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)