Imagine Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins performing in the same intimate room — and recorded for posterity. That actually happened, remarkably, and that supergroup scene is recreated in Million Dollar Quartet, the show holding residency this week at the Smith Center.
It’s a musical for traditional rock ‘n’ roll fans — more so than Jersey Boys – and nostalgists. However, the subtext of the production may seem familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the evolution of the music business: An independent label (Sun Records) run by an opportunistic but rebellious industry type (Sam Phillips) is struggling to keep its charting talent (in this case, Presley and Cash) from signing with bigger labels who can promise a larger audience and, of course, more money. All Phillips (who also owns a studio in Memphis) can do is cultivate its veteran talent (Perkins, who desperately needs a post-”Blue Suede Shoes” hit), sign those eager to be a part of the company’s legacy (a precocious, right-off-the-street Lewis), and try and persuade Presley and Cash that those big record companies don’t possess the character, integrity or support of a smaller, homegrown label like Sun Records.
The story, though, is secondary to the happenstance gathering: On Dec. 4, 1956, Carl Perkins visits Sun Studios to cut some new tracks with his band. Lewis blows in to inquire about getting a shot at stardom; Phillips asks him to stand in as the day’s piano player. Cash and Presley (with vocalist girlfriend Dyanne) separately drop by thereafter. Through the course of the day, the four men play some of their favorite songs together — mostly old country, blues and spiritual songs. The “plot” is interwoven between numbers, and it all culminates with an all-star concert created just for the show, featuring the biggest hits of each quartet member of that time. And you cannot quibble with the soundtrack – it’s the very foundation of rock ‘n’ roll.
The center of attention here isn’t Elvis, played by Cody Slaughter. In fact, he’s the weakest of the main actors, lacking the charisma it takes to properly play The King. I also wasn’t too hot on Derek Keeling’s depiction of Cash, who takes the singer’s bass/baritone voice to excessive new lows. No, the star here is easily Martin Kaye, an appropriately unhinged, naive and cocky Lewis who delivers the goods every time he’s called to do so and then some. Kaye got the largest ovation after June 12’s performance, and deservedly so.
Christopher Ryan Grant plays Phillips with the right tone — earnest, conflicted, reactive and evangelical about proving that rock ‘n’ roll is no mere pop trend. Lee Ferris’ Carl Perkins is as defensive as an artist experiencing a commercial slide — and losing recognition for his lone hit to Presley — would be. And the Dyanne character, played by Kelly Lamont, only seems to served as a device to show a distracted Presley, to grease the plot and to provide one female vocal presence amid the cast’s sausagefest. Lamont might not be allowed to outshine the main actors, but a little more sass also might’ve better justified her character.
It should be noted that all the actors comprising the titular foursome not only sing and act, but play their own instruments, too.
Million Dollar Quartet is a crowd-pleaser that might not have the appeal, familiarity or spectacle of your standard Vegas resident show — and that’s what this attendee especially appreciated about the show. In fact, it’s the perfect musical for people who generally dislike musicals, which means it’s also an ideal occasion for anyone wanting an excuse to visit the Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall, but who can’t normally stomach the sing-song likes of Mary Poppins or even Wicked. Furthermore, I’m happy to report that I’ve seen Broadway shows in Los Angeles and New York, and not once did I find myself wanting to compare the Smith Center to those cities’ theaters and performing arts halls. It’s its own thing — and it’s our own thing.
Through Sunday, June 17, 7:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m.; Reynolds Hall at Smith Center, 361 Symphony Park,www.thesmithcenter.com, $24-$129.