The Million Dollar Quartet’s arrival at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater is a sort of homecoming for the now five-year-old Sun Records musical: After an initial staging by Floyd Mutrux, who co-wrote the book with Colin Escott, it was directed for Chicago and then Broadway by Eric Schaeffer of Signature Theatre.
I’ve been to Sun Studios in Memphis to take the tour and buy the T-shirt. My fear walking into this revue of classic 1950s rock and country sides, and the gospel tunes that inspired the men who made them, was that the songs would be declawed and over-sugared in the Glee style. They’re not. The band you see on stage in the literally larger-than-life replica of the auto parts warehouse-turned-recording studio where Sam Phillips recorded “Rocket 88” and “Folsom Prison Blues” and all the rest is the one that’s doing the playing, and the performances are pungent and greasy enough to remind you this music was dangerous, once.
The show fictionalizes the real-life congress of giants that occurred Dec. 4, 1956, when Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley dropped in on a Sun recording session by Carl Perkins—-one that also featured a hotheaded horndog of a piano player, one Jerry Lee Lewis, hungry and not yet a star.
There’s a whisp of a plot, thinner than Elvis’s snarling upper lip, about Cash trying to work up the courage to tell Phillips, our narrator (affably slick Vince Nappo), that he’ll be leaving Phillips’ Sun label for Columbia Records, while Phillips mulls a buyout offer of his own. Despite the inclusion of flashbacks to each man’s audition with Phillips and an invented rivalry between Perkins and Presley over “Blue Suede Shoes” (Perkins’s tune, though Elvis was the one who sang it on The Ed Sullivan show, swiftly graduating to major-label stardom and the movies), this is closer to a rock show than to a jazz-hands musical. It works simply because the music is, for the most part, fantastic—-especially pseudo-Carl Perkins Robert Britton Lyons’ rangy, blasting guitar and pseudo-Jay Perkins Corey Kaiser’s fluid upright bass. Kelly Lamont, playing Presley’s girlfriend of the moment Dyanne, dilutes the testosterone a little with her vampy takes of “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking.” The performance I saw featured Austin Cook, an understudy, as Lewis, and he was the most magnetic of the actor/musicans occupying the four faces of this early rock Mt. Rushmore.
Cody Slaughter’s Elvis seemed a little out of step with the others, perhaps because he alone appeared to be doing an impression of his famous character. Two days before Christmas, the show’s home stretch of iconic hits was extended by one song, Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.” It came a few songs after we were finally invited to stand up, something I’d been wanting to do for at least an hour.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel