BWW Reviews: Broadway San Jose's MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Rocks the House Now through May 13


Broadway San Jose continues with its spectacular season bringing Million Dollar Quartet to life in the beautiful and stylish San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.  Hodges and Hodges were there to dance up a storm as Elvis Presley (Cody Slaughter) Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye), Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris), and Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling) took the stage, singing together again as they did on that historical day back on December 4, 1956. 

These four musicians would end up being The Kings Of rock and roll (Elvis already was), thanks to one man, the legendary Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records down in Memphis.  Million Dollar Quartet, which was nominated for the Tony in 2010 for Best Musical, is inspired by the true story of the famed impromptu jam session that took place in Sam Phillip’s Sun Records recording studio.  The musical, with a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux doesn’t even try to capture the historical accuracy of that day, so much as conjure up the magic of the moment engendered by these four greats when rock and roll was just being born and they were all just at the beginning of making history.

Hodges and Hodges Review Follows:

Linda, let’s start with the Sun Records Recording Studio set that greets audience members as they walk into the theatre.

Thanks, Nick.  The set was designed by Derek McLane (winner of three Tony Awards for his designs).  As with the book, the set is an idealized version of the original Sun Records recording studio.  The red banquette-style baffling, tiled ceilings and 50’s checkered floor were not part of the original studio, but they make for a great backdrop for the action onstage.

Nick:  And that set was brilliantly lit by Howell Binkley whose overhead spots in particular, seemed to highlight the features of each star and made you feel as if you were in the room with the actual greats.

Linda:  It was uncanny how much Cody Slaughter looked like Elvis – especially in the freeze spots.  And if I closed my eyes, I could swear that Johnny Cash was in the room singing.  The audience had a strong, heartfelt reaction to Derek Keeling’s Johnny Cash. Cash was a well-loved performer.  Keeling's low notes - simply astounding.  Nick, you definitely could set aside your concerns about the actor's style and character.  They were all great.

Nick:  I couldn’t agree more.  But what about you?   You were concerned about the storyline.

Linda:  A few words on that.  The show was definitely light on storyline, melding together into one day, what took several years to pan out in full.  Sam Phillips’ financial concerns about keeping Sun Records afloat,  Cash and Presley moving on to Columbia and RCA respectively, Perkins struggling in the shadow of Presley – especially when he was the one who wrote and originally performed “Blue Suede Shoes.”  And then there’s Jerry Lee Lewis, whose antics were only hinted at here. 

Nick:  Yes, at times the drama seemed contrived, but it did add just enough tension to keep the audience involved.  and it was great to hear the backstory on how Phillips discovered each of them.

Linda:  Agreed.  But what struck me was the way playwrights Escott and Mutrux captured the downhome Southern laidback quality in the language and tone of each good ol’ boy star. It served to highlight the stark contrast between the radicalness of their rock and roll personas and their Christian upbringings. If you go back and listen to the original jam session from that day, most of the songs are gospels.  You have to remember that all four of them hailed from southern evangelical roots and each struggled with what it meant to be god-fearing believers on Sunday and hip-swiveling rockers playing ‘the devil’s music’ the rest of the time.  Hell, Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin was the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart!  And it’s revealed in the show that Lewis attended Bible College for a short time. So the storyline was important and certainly added to the magic, but this, most assuredly, was a character-driven show.

Nick:  Cody Slaughter played the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley, and he was just amazing.  His delivery of Elvis was just spot on.  He looked, sounded, and was Elvis Presley.  During some of his songs, he was hard to understand, but that was exactly Elvis’ style and precisely how the King sang.  It was so exciting to watch him as evidenced by all the screaming in the audience.  What’s cool to note is that Elvis Presley Enterprises named Cody Slaughter the 2011 ‘Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist’ in Memphis this past August and it was well earned.

Linda:  Martin Kaye was scintillating as the brash, amazingly talented piano player, Jerry Lee Lewis.  I have no idea what the audition process must have been for this part, but Martin Kaye can play the piano like nobody I have ever seen, in addition to superb acting, singing and dancing.  I think that makes him a quadruple threat!  Kaye was the comic relief in Million Dollar Quartet,  playing the young Jerry Lee with a quirky southern charm. As the new kid on the block he has something to prove to the already well-known greats.  Kaye’s excitement and energy on stage was palpable and exhilarating and he did a fantastic job.

Nick:  Lee Ferris played Carl Perkins and he brought a depth and naturalness to the part that was refreshing. His Perkin’s had a huge chip on his shoulder.  Carl Perkins’ famous song “Blue Suede Shoes” is known by most (including myself) to have been sung by Elvis Presley who covered the song.  When he performed it on the CBS program ‘Stage Show’ the song became synonymous with Elvis.  Ferris plays this anger well and doesn’t overdo it.  His guitar playing was just unbelievable.  It was like being at a concert and not at a musical.  What a great performer.

Linda:  Derek Keeling played the young Johnny Cash with absolute precision.  I don’t think that even the most avid Johnny Cash fan would be able to tell the difference between Cash and Keeling’s sound.  He was just that good.  He also had some great acting moments that were genuine and believable, like when he drops a bomb on record producer Sam Phillips. 

The show’s storyline is narrated by Sam Phillips who is considered to be the father of Rock and Roll.  He’s the man that discovered all four of these greats as well as a stable of others.  Grant is absolutely superb as the man behind the power in the room.  His voice inflection, mannerisms and commanding presence serve to anchor the show – as well as fill us in on the backstory of how he discovered each one of the men.

Nick:  I have to say that it was just amazing to hear them sing their hits. To name just a few:  “Blue Suede Shoes, “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog,” “That’s All Right,” “I Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and then the final showstopper, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

Linda:  Rounding out the cast is Kelly Lamont as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne and some crazy cool backup playing by bass player Chuck Zayas (playing Jay Perkins) and drummer Billy Shaffer (playing Fluke).

Nick and Linda:  Million Dollar Quartet is an exciting, get-up-and-dance, rock and roll phenomenon that allows the audience to be present at one of the greatest moments in rock and roll history.  The finale was like being at a live concert with legends Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.  There’s still time to see it, so get your tickets now!

Book by Collin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Original Concept and Direction by Floyd Mutrux
Inspired by who else – Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins
Through May 13
Broadway San Jose
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Daniel

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