BWW Reviews: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Rocks Hershey Theatre
On December 4, 1956, an event took place that did not, at the time, change musical history: Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis all wound up at Sun Records, three of them by happenstance, and studio engineer Cowboy Jack Clements had the sense to record the jam session that occurred after Perkins' scheduled recording session. Although legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips had the wisdom to call the local papers, which gave rise to the famous photo of what he dubbed the "million dollar quartet", the first portions of the recording session to be released didn't come out of Sun until the 1980's. By the time the jam session started, Perkins was tired and only sang lead on one song. Cash had dropped by to hang out with Perkins, and his voice is on only a few of the tracks recorded; although he later insisted in his autobiography that he was there the entire time, story has it that he went out to do some Christmas shopping. Elvis, then recording for RCA, dropped in with a girlfriend named Marilyn. There was no drama, but a whole lot of gospel jamming going on.
Forget about it. That's how it actually happened, but not how it should have happened. There should have been hours of greatest hits being sung by all four, there should have been drama, and there should have been recognition that those four great performers and producer Phillips, who had never all been in a room together before, would never all be together at the same time again. It should have been momentous. But that's all right, as Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux finally put together the show MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET to rectify the situation. Premiering in 2007, it reached Broadway in 2010, moved Off-Broadway in 2011 and is now on national tour, currently at the Hershey Theatre. Directed by DC-area veteran Eric Schaeffer, the show is just over 90 minutes of classic 50's music mixed with just enough conflict and drama to make an audience do more than just hum along happily, and it is the best show in town, tightly held together by Schaeffer's direction.
In the current lineup, Cody Slaughter plays Elvis Presley, giving the King of Rock and Roll all of the energy and liquid motion needed to be convincing. Slaughter has worked professionally as an Elvis impersonator, but he is indeed an actor as well as an impressionist, fully doing justice to Elvis' major part in the proceedings. Although they are friends, he runs into conflict with Carl Perkins, upon whose blue suede shoes he's stepped by performing Perkins' song on The Ed Sullivan Show. Perkins, who also is in a feud with up-and-coming performer Jerry Lee Lewis, is played by a recent entry into the tour, James Barry (on Broadway in BLOODY, BLOODY Andrew Jackson), who brings his performance ample energy, solid vocals, and a really fine turn on a gold-top Les Paul throughout the show (more on that point later). Barry's Perkins is on The Edge, worried about a declining career, his songs attributed to Elvis, competition facing him from Jerry Lee Lewis, and the possibility that Sun Records may be hampering him; his emotions are raw, and Barry's performance lets the bleeding show.
David Elkins is the lead for Johnny Cash, but at opening in Hershey, Scott Moreau performed as Cash, in a performance that very much simply is Cash - even more so than Slaughter is Elvis. From vocal impression to physical movement, Johnny Cash is on the stage, and the audience does not forget it. Cash is the pivotal figure here even though he recedes into the background regularly - the drama brought to the play is the question of whether Cash will agree to renew his contract with Sun Records or if, like Elvis, he will seek his fortune with a more lucrative contract elsewhere now that his reputation is made. Moreau inhabits Cash's part perfectly as Cash worries through how to break the news to Phillips. English actor Ben Goddard as Jerry Lee Lewis dominates the stage, however, even when he is confined to a spot at the piano - like the original, he is all spastic energy, attacking keys with both hands rather than a finger, leg flying to the keyboard and elsewhere. He is also the comic relief of the show, a young man with no reputation yet trying to make his mark in a room full of musical legend. Goddard and Barry engage in a humorous but direly serious vocal slugfest between Lewis and Perkins, the upstart piano player threatening the teetering King of Rockabilly for dominance at Sun, and their tension is palpable to the audience.
Vince Nappo is Sam Phillips, Sun's owner/producer, a man who prompts the jam session unaware that when the night is over he may have lost an entire stable of recording artists, but who slowly realizes that something is wrong in his domain. He is also a narrator of events, showing both the drama of the evening and the dirt-poor origins of his stars, who all came to him hoping for their big break and desperate for him to turn them into people successful enough to be able to walk out on him. Kelly Lamont plays Dyanne, Elvis' date, who comes into the studio prepared to listen to music but winds up listening to everyone's angst as well, the unknown who makes the best confidant. She also rocks the house on a rousing performance of "I Hear You Knocking".
One of the many things that makes MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET rise far above other jukebox musicals is that there is a coherent book, but one of the other, and most important ones, is that the show relies on actors who can both sing and perform on their characters' instruments as a band. This is a jukebox musical that doesn't feel like one - it feels like dropping in on your friends' band practice the night something happens; it feels real to the audience. And it works.
According to Barry, a man who really can play a guitar behind his back, "For me, personally, it's a privilege to play Carl Perkins because he's the one the audience knows the least about. It's great to be able to tell his story." Goddard, playing Perkins' nemesis, adds that "Playing Jerry Lee Lewis really is my dream come true, especially coming over from England to the States - I'm here and I'm an instant rock and roll legend." Local theatergoers can meet some legends onstage at Hershey Theatre through February 3; for tickets, call 717-534-3405, or visit www.hersheytheatre.com for details.