Elvis, Cash and Jerry Lee get O.C. crowd on its feet
Watching "Million Dollar Quartet" at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Wednesday, I found myself asking an obvious question: Why wasn't this musical made years ago? It debuted in 2007 and has played London and Broadway, but music fans would have eaten it up long before then.
"Million Dollar Quartet" is based on the most famous accidental recording session in music history. On Dec. 4, 1956, rockabilly guitarist-singer Carl Perkins came to Sun Records in Memphis to lay down a few tracks. Sam Phillips, the renowned star-maker who founded the scrappy studio, had invited an unproven hotshot named Jerry Lee Lewis to add a few fiery piano licks to the session.
During the afternoon, two men dropped by who owed their careers to Phillips: Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
Presley was no longer with Sun; Phillips had sold his contract to RCA for $40,000 in order to save his struggling studio. Cash was at the end of his Sun contract, and Phillips had a new three-year deal tucked into his breast pocket. But Cash had just signed with Columbia, though he hadn't yet broken the news to Phillips.
What happened next is the stuff of myth. The four men jammed for hours, recording a raft of blues, gospel, bluegrass and country tunes that Colin Escott, a pop-music scholar and co-creator of "Million Dollar Quartet," has called "a catechism of where rock 'n' roll comes from."
Escott and Floyd Mutrux, who helped write the script and directs the show, took many liberties.
They compressed about 18 months of musical history into one busy recording session, laying bare rivalries among the men and details of contract negotiations that provide a succinct look at the contrasting careers of four music legends.
And most of the 22 songs in the packed score weren't recorded on that fateful day. The show's creators wisely decided to include the hits that these stars made famous: "Blue Suede Shoes," "That's All Right," "I Walk the Line," "Great Balls of Fire," "Hound Dog."
The plot is straightforward and presentational, much like another jukebox musical about Golden Age legends, "Jersey Boys."
As each star is introduced, Phillips describes their first meeting with him, often staged as a flashback. Though we're hearing only his side of the story, it's clear that each of these men arrived at his studio as a prodigious but raw talent with working-class roots. The one thing they had in common besides genius was unbridled ambition, and Phillips knew how to harness it while exploiting each man's musical strengths.
In this production, Lewis (Martin Kaye) comes off as a cartoonish buffoon – a Mozart-like character whose immaturity, manic energy and blinding musical prowess combine in persona unlike any other. He makes a number of clumsy passes at Elvis' girlfriend Dyanne (Kelly Lamont), an attractive singer whose presence is mainly for window dressing and a fifth voice in the group harmonies. The moments are effective, contrasting her polish with his unvarnished charm.
Perkins (Lee Ferris) is the most edgy of the quartet. He had a hit with "Blue Suede Shoes," but Phillips has been unable to find a follow-up for him. Perkins takes an instant dislike to the bumptious Lewis, and Phillips often intervenes like a testy dad.
Elvis (Cody Slaughter) is the biggest name in the room but not yet a confident superstar despite his phenomenal recent success. He had a disastrous experience opening for Shecky Greene in Las Vegas, and there's some tension between him and Perkins over his triumph with Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes." The King is still slightly deferential and innocent at this point in his career.
Cash (Derek Keeling) has the most at stake. He looks for the right moment to tell Phillips about his decision to leave Sun, but never finds one. Their falling out is the climax of the story, and it's played well by Keeling and Christopher Ryan Grant, who plays Phillips as a brusque but ultimately loveable showman with killer instincts for talent-spotting.
All the performers do credible though not slavish imitations of the superstars. Keeling has Cash's rumbling baritone sound, and Slaughter has perfected Elvis' swivel-hipped moves.
They're all credible instrumentalists as well. Kaye nails Lewis' machine-gun staccato sound on the piano, and Ferris, an excellent guitarist, captures Perkins' celebrated, freewheeling style.
The ensemble is supported by a first-rate rhythm section. Chuck Zayas plays bassist Jay Perkins, Carl's older brother; Billy Shaffer is Fluke, a session drummer. They never leave their elevated perch in the corner of Phillips' dingy little studio, convincingly imagined by scenic designer Derek McLane.
"Million Dollar Quartet" will never be compared to "South Pacific." Jukebox musicals seldom break free of the awkwardness that results from shoehorning standalone songs into a storyline. But it comes as close as any jukebox creation to making the music seem a natural part of the action. And this music is as emblematic, joyful and brilliant as anything that emerged from midcentury American culture.
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