Million Dollar Quartet is the latest rock musical to appear at The Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall. It’s told from the perspective of producer Sam Phillips (Vince Nappo) who, incredibly, brought Jerry Lee Lewis (Ben Goddard), Elvis (Cody Slaughter), Johnny Cash (David Elkins) and Carl Perkins (James Barry) together in his studio at Sun Records in 1956. What followed was a history-making rockabilly jam session.
The actors actually play instruments in this one. Yeah, they do, and it’s quite thrilling! The theatricality is heightened exponentially when Jerry Lee’s hands go ripping down the piano keys. I can understand why he became famous, as there is something mesmerizing about that style of playing, like he’s just on the brink of barely losing control. It’s exciting. It left me wondering where the man came up with all those piano gimmicks. He must have been absolutely insane.
As the play begins, Phillips is recording Carl Perkins, trying to get him a new hit. When Jerry lets it rip on Perkins’ recording, playing with his feet and knees, the gloves start to come off. Then, of course Johnny Cash shows up, and then Elvis. Elvis is in the throes of stardom, and Johnny’s career has just begun to take off in earnest.
This show was clearly created as a vehicle for the hit music (“Blue Suede Shoes,” “That’s Alright”), and it fits in well within the recent jukebox musical tradition. The dialogue and story are secondary. In the case of this show, the writers execute the plot rather halfheartedly. It’s kind of a shame that the plot is so scrappy, because the personalities in question are so fascinating and to see them all together in a more realistic way would have been really interesting. Still, there is an attempt to represent the stoic Johnny, the over-the-top Jerry Lee, and the melancholy yet charming Elvis – all poor Southern boys, all struggling to keep steady in the face of wild success.
The music and musicianship in this show is fantastic, and there is a lot of flash to keep the audience’s attention. You can hear why these songs were hits; they have a pull, an energy; songs like “Real Wild Child” make you want to move.
The singers are believable, particularly Cody Slaughter, who looked and sounded remarkably like Elvis without turning the role into an impersonation. Elkins as Johnny Cash was a good sell too. He got Cash’s deep rough bass voice. In songs like “Walk the Line”and “Folsom Prison Blues“ Elkins found the right timber. As a trained singer, though, his voice is far more polished than Johnny’s, and you miss the rough edge a little.
At one point Samuel Phillips notes regrettably that he wished these men had experienced more happiness in their lives. That theme could have been pulled through the script a little more carefully, as it is the sad reality for many young singers.
Million Dollar Quartet is a fun flashy show and a great night out for people who love rock music – and the era when it all began.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner