BWW Reviews: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Rocks the Pantages


Million Dollar Quartet
directed by Eric Schaeffer
Pantages Theatre
through July 1
Some New York critics panned Million Dollar Quartet for what they called a dearth of dramatic tension onstage, but it went on to receive a Tony nomination for Book of a Musical in 2010 anyway, and based on the overly passionate delivery of the sizzling tour artists, there's enough fire and fever to bring audiences to their feet and shakin' at the Pantages through July 1. On opening night there was indeed an extra long standing, and swaying, ovation to "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On".

Based on an historical impromptu recording session that occurred on December 4, 1956 in Memphis at Sun Records, Million Dollar Quartet details that one special and only time when Elvis Presley ( Cody Slaughter), Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling), Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye) played and sang together. Producer Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant), who gave all four big breaks in the record business, had already lost Elvis to RCA, and was about to lose Cash and Perkins to Columbia, leaving only the wildly egomaniacAl Lewis to become Sun's next great star. The actual recordings didn't get released until the 1990s.

The play dramatizes Phillip's difficulty in keeping Sun Records afloat amidst bigger, more moneyed competition. It also capitalizes on the one thing these distinctive talents had in common: their unstoppable love for music, whether it be country, gospel, rock or pop. Presley and Cash were stars, but Perkins really needed a hit - Presley had snatched his "Blue Suede Shoes" away from him, and so everyone remembered Elvis' attachment to it. Lewis was on the cusp of greatness, but his fresh off the mule pigheadedness, lack of respect and overall crazy, rude behavior needed to be quelled. Phillips had his work cut out for him, but knew raw talent when he saw it - Lewis was so good that none of the others wanted to follow him during the set. An Elvis girlfriend, here referred to as Dyanne (Kelly Lamont) joins him in the studio and lends her great pipes to a couple of numbers "Fever" and "I Hear You Knocking".

The entire cast does indeed rock under Eric Schaeffer's outstanding direction. As with Follies, it is character that counts and each is portrayed with a unique style down to the smallest detail. Slaughter is an almost exact replica of the suave, sexy but boylike Elvis in looks and voice; Keeling remarkably reproduces Cash's deep velvety vocal sounds; Ferris plays a mean guitar, recreating Perkins as the dynamite guitar player that he was and Kaye is literally a 'Great Ball of Fire' as rambunctious spitfire Jerry Lee Lewis. Each has a quiet moment or two, and slight, subtle reactions speak volumes. A few words about Grant as Sam Phillips: he has the big dramatic nonsinging role, with many more spoken lines in the script... and admirably goes all the way in displaying the inner turmoil of his character. Lamont is beautiful, sweet, caring and holds her own with a song . Billy Shaffer (drummer) and Chuck Zayas (bass player) complete the glorious ensemble.

Songs, apart from those already mentioned, include: "Memories Are Made of This", "Down By the Riverside", "Sixteen Tons", "Long Tall Sally", a stunning "Peace in the Valley", "I Walk the Line", "Hound Dog", "Riders in the Sky", and "Who Do You Love?"

For fans, it's heaven; for the younger generation, what a way to experience 50s music! Derek McLane's set of the studio is simple but appropriate to time and place. What stand out here, first and foremost, are the trail-blazing musical performances of four true legends. Million Dollar Quartet is nostalgia plus, a replica of our culture that should never die.

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From This Author Don Grigware

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