Theater Review: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (National Tour)

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by Barnaby Hughes on June 21, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


People all over the world never seem to tire of Elvis Presley, even if that means watching mediocre impersonators like the “Thai Elvis” at Palm’s Thai restaurant in Hollywood. For an incredibly convincing impression of Elvis, including a one-of-a-kind ensemble performance, simply walk down Hollywood Boulevard to the Pantages Theatre and watch Million Dollar Quartet. This musical tells the story of a unique recording made by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash at Sun Records in Memphis. It was the first and last time that these four talented musicians would come together. Elvis had already signed a deal with RCA, Carl and Johnny were about to sign with Columbia and Jerry was just getting started. Credit the Million Dollar Quartet recording to Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, who not only gave the recording ensemble its extraordinary name, but nurtured the talent of all four music icons.

Barnaby Hughes’ Los Angeles review of Million Dollar Quartet at Pantages (National Tour)

Million Dollar Quartet debuted at Florida’s Seaside Theatre in 2007 and soon went on to win numerous awards, including a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical. Three productions are currently running: one in New York, another in Chicago and the present touring production, marking the show’s Los Angeles debut. Featuring a book written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott (author of several books, including Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll), Million Dollar Quartet is less a musical than a collective rock biopic or rockumentary. It consists of nearly two dozen songs, many not actually recorded during the famous session, interspersed with some drama and plenty of narration from Sam Phillips.

Barnaby Hughes’ Los Angeles review of Million Dollar Quartet at Pantages (National Tour)The show’s setting is the Sun Records recording studio in Memphis on the evening of December 4, 1956. Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris) on electric guitar, Jay Perkins (Chuck Zayas) on upright bass, and Fluke (Billy Shaffer) on drums are recording some songs for Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant). In order to beef up their spare rockabilly sound, Phillips introduces Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye) on piano. Before long, Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling) arrives, followed by Elvis Presley (Cody Slaughter) and his girlfriend Dyanne (Kelly Lamont).

The musicians record one hit song after another (“Hound Dog,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls o’ Fire”), interspersing solo and ensemble playing, softer acoustic numbers and spirituals sung in four-part harmony (“Down by the River”). Drama is created by numerous subplots, including those surrounding each musician’s recording contract, or lack thereof, with Phillips’ Sun Records. Perkins castigates Elvis for stealing his song “Blue Suede Shoes,” while the cocky young Lewis continually ruffles everyone’s feathers with his sassy mouth and show-off playing style.

Barnaby Hughes’ Los Angeles review of Million Dollar Quartet at Pantages (National Tour)

Director Eric Schaeffer coaxes outstanding performances from each member of the show’s talented cast. Slaughter makes an excellent stand-in for Elvis; he has the looks, the dance and the chops. Keeling’s performance as Cash is somewhat subdued, but his bass singing voice beautifully evokes the “man in black.” Kaye nearly steals the show as the brash pianist Jerry Lee Lewis. He pounds the keys almost like a drummer would, playing backwards, forwards, upside-down and any which way. But it’s his provocative and self-deprecating humor that keeps the show light and entertaining.

Barnaby Hughes’ Los Angeles review of Million Dollar Quartet at Pantages (National Tour)

Grant has the heavier role, contributing almost nothing to the music, though everything to the plot and story. Lamont, as the only female in the cast, adds a necessary feminine counterbalance to an otherwise masculine show. Unfortunately, however, her role is the most problematic. Elvis Presley’s girlfriend at the time was not Dyanne, but Marilyn Evans, a Las Vegas showgirl. In Million Dollar Quartet, she sings to musical numbers, but in the actual recording she was more of a fly on the wall and was cropped out of the iconic picture of Elvis, Johnny, Carl and Jerry.

Barnaby Hughes’ Los Angeles review of Million Dollar Quartet at Pantages (National Tour)

Rock musicals typically draw big audiences, but one featuring beloved music icons like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash is bound to do so. Million Dollar Quartet does not disappoint, delivering a fun show that all ages can enjoy. It introduces young people to the founders of rock ‘n’ roll, revives the memories of those who lived through that exciting era and teaches everyone about a fabulous recording that deserves to be better known.

photos by Jeremy Daniel

Barnaby Hughes’ Los Angeles review of Million Dollar Quartet at Pantages (National Tour)

Million Dollar Quartet
Pantages Theatre in Hollywood
ends on July 1, 2012
for tickets, visit Hollywood Pantages

then continuing on national tour and Vegas with an open run
for dates and tickets, visit Million Dollar Quartet Live

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rose Topping June 24, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Really enjoyed your style of writing. I too still love Elvis.


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