By JOHN DeMERS
I’ve never been much for talk about reincarnation, one way or the other. But if three of rock n’ roll’s four greatest early superstars found themselves reincarnated for one night only (and then “cousin” Jerry Lee showed up, just to raise some hell), the result probably would be a lot like Million Dollar Quartet.
The raucous musical event, in which real musicians play a real concert of hits by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, just for us, was at the start no guaranteed hit. Broadway, we’re told, was sick of “jukebox musicals” and had turned thumbs-down on the last several to open. Still, the sheer audacity of Million Dollar won folks over night after night, presumably before the producers’ bank accounts ran dry, and now the show packs ‘em in nightly in several cities. Thanks to a national tour, that means Houston and the Hobby Center, which for a little over 90 minutes gets turned into Sun Records in Memphis on a Tuesday night shortly before Christmas 1956.
On that night, according to a small footnote to rock history, the four greatest stars to get their start from Sun’s redneck visionary Sam Phillips gathered and sang together for the first and only time. It was a sign of the times, when gas was only 25 cents of gallon, that Phillips didn’t call the impromptu house band his Billion Dollar Quartet. Each of the artists went on to bigger and better than little ole Sun Records; but they (and now we) never forgot the night they, almost by accident, honored the birth of modern American music.
Think tribute band on steroids. Think impersonators and then some. Think solid acting on the level of Michelle Williams in “My Week with Marilyn.” Think about all those things, and then let yourself get blown out of your seat by the youthful whirlwind that is this music. There’s a satisfying little plot weaving the songs together – about the night itself, about the moves each musician was making to build his career, about the sadness we now know awaited all of them – but when you’re in the theater with Million Dollar Quartet, it’s the music that matters.
Cody Slaughter may have the toughest job, being an “Elvis impersonator” in a world full of them. Still, by setting Elvis as an already-disillusioned young man visiting Memphis from Hollywood in 1956, Slaughter is able to sidestep virtually all of the older, fatter, more pathetic clichés that most impersonators build their acts around. Lee Ferris is at the other end of the spectrum as Carl Perkins (he of “Blue Suede Shoes”), since not many remember what the guy looked or acted like. In fact, his character seems to fear that will happen in the course of the show.
If it’s possible to have even more bass in a man’s voice than Johnny Cash did, Derek Keeling brings it to his singing and acting as the Man in Black. And what can you say about Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis? He’s wild? He’s crazy? He’s a tad possessed and satanic? Anything you can say about Kaye playing the role is exactly what most folks in 1956 were saying about The Killer himself. There are sly insider references to the controversy and tragedy that awaited Lewis in his personal life, and several knowing asides about the Good Book as preached by his cousin Jimmy Swaggart; but all the things we know that came later are gauzed over by the musical mists of time.
Million Dollar Quartet works because it runs on a single, simple belief: We’re born and later we die, and in between we make our music. Still, if the music we make is incredible enough, it lives on for generations after us. Trust me, the music these guys play each night is more than that incredible.