Thursday, March 8, 2012
Theater review: Million Dollar Quartet at Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas
The music was impeccable.
"It really was such a night." Those lyrics to my favorite Elvis Presley song were spoken during Million Dollar Quartet (presented by Dallas Summer Musicals at Music Hall at Fair Park through March 18), though the song itself came a little later in The King's reign. Still, the phrase applied to this production on many levels: It alluded to Elvis's later hit, it spoke to the excitement of opening night in the theater, and it certainly conveyed – however succinctly – the magic inside Sun Records' studio on December 4th, 1956.
Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis were all broke, down on their luck musicians before they were hired by Sam Phillips to represent his Memphis record label in the early to mid 1950s. Many of their hits were Phillips productions so it was bittersweet to watch the rock n' roll impresario lose some of his biggest names to other labels, a change that culminated with the events of December 4th, 1956 when all were gathered in the Sun studio for one last jam session – the last time all five men were ever in the same room.
Million Dollar Quartet is indeed a jukebox musical but the book, written by Floyd Mutrux and Collin Escott, is what separated this piece from some others in its genre. The story paints an accurate, personality-filled portrait of each musical great, but don't be deceived: Million Dollar Quartet is not really a tale of Elvis, Carl, Johnny, and Jerry Lee. It's a story about Sam Phillips.
Christopher Ryan Grant's playbill bio notes an impressive group of credentials, including an MFA from Yale University. Maybe an Ivy League education really is worth all that and a bag of snacks because Mr. Grant's portrayal of Sam Phillips was one of the downright, spot-on best, most incredible performances I'd seen. He narrated the story for us, some of which took place during stop-motion freezes, and he interacted beautifully with each of his superstars. He was fatherly and kind when he spoke privately with Elvis, he was encouraging to Carl Perkins who was awaiting his next hit, and he was hurt and angry when Johnny Cash dropped a bombshell on the group. It was his synergy with the character of Jerry Lee Lewis where his penchant for comedy shone most, however. Mr. Grant's timing was excellent, his gravelly Southern accent was natural – a multi-faceted, fabulous, in-the-skin portrayal of this music icon. His performance alone was worth the price of admission, though every performance was stellar.
Cody Slaughter was named the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist in 2011 by Elvis Presley Enterprises, and it was easy to see why. Mr. Slaughter not only swiveled his hips and curled his lips like the King but the physical and vocal resemblances were uncanny. He was fidgety and slightly awkward when reminiscing with Mr. Phillips, but sexy and teen scream-inducing when he smiled. Every move he made and every song he sang, especially "Hound Dog" and "Peace in the Valley", made us believe that Elvis was still in the building.
Out of this group of four iconic men, Carl Perkins may have been the hardest to portray simply because he may be the least well known to the public at large. He's not the King of Rock N' Roll, or The Killer, or The Man in Black, so the fact that Lee Ferris was able to clearly mark his character as an individual among these more well known acts was, to some degree, a feat. Mr. Ferris was a skilled ax man and thusly very believable as Perkins. His vocal chops were right on point, and the little backwards skip that became a Perkins performance mainstay felt very natural.
As Derek Keeling prepared to sing "Folsom Prison Blues" I thought, "Well, this is the point of the show where things will fall apart – nobody can sing those bass notes like Cash." As usual, I shouldn't have made an assumption. Mr. Keeling was more than comfortable in the deepest parts of Cash's range and his speaking voice was a beautiful replica of Cash's own. It was interesting to watch this Texas audience respond to Mr. Keeling. While Elvis definitely received the hysterical screams, the audience's energy rolled with anticipation as we waited to hear the train a comin' with Mr. Keeling.
I don't know if this happens to you, dear reader, but every time I hear a Jerry Lee Lewis song it becomes stuck in my head for days and I go around humming and singing it – it's like a tic for me. Martin Kaye, along with his killer wavy blond locks, has me in a bind this morning as I typed because I kept repeating the following line in my head: "Shake it one time for ME!" I was awestruck by Mr. Kaye's total embodiment of his character. From his ramrod-straight back while hammering the piano, to the placement of his feet and the microphone while he was singing, to his pointed one-liners, he was a sight to behold on all counts.
The writers couldn't risk a show of just men, so they included the character of Elvis' girlfriend who happened to also be a singer (Elvis did bring along a girl on that December 4th so long ago but they changed her name for the show). Kelly Lamont was a welcome, ideal addition of soft and sassy in this room full of testosterone. Her renditions of "Fever" and "I Hear You Knocking" were perfectly placed within the story and list of musical numbers. What a stunner.
Have I mentioned that all of these actors played their own instruments during the show? And that included a harmonica solo by Mr. Grant during the show's finale. Throw in a talented bass player and a wonderful drummer and the music was impeccable. While I am no expert, the instruments as well as the microphones and amplifiers all seemed true to the period and added a great deal of authenticity to the sound and to the set.
Speaking of the set, what a beauty! I hate to say too much on this count as seeing it in person is the only way to do it justice. I will say that it was executed masterfully and it was a great deal more intricate than I anticipated for this show. Along with the costumes, hair and makeup, and props (check out the soda bottles, y'all), it truly felt like 1956.
Michael Jenkins and Dallas Summer Musicals have a hit on their hands, people. See it for yourself and you'll want to thank me, thank me very much.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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