Image credit: Joan Marcus/Hennepin Theatre Trust
What if four of music's biggest legends spent an evening together early in their careers jamming together in the studio that discovered them all?
That “if” can be found in Million Dollar Quartet, the latest Broadway sensation to hit Hennepin Avenue.
Not so much a play as a concert,Million Dollar Quartet is a show based on a photo taken of four of the biggest music legends of the 1950s and 1960s at a meeting at Sun Records. These 'big four' – Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins – were all signed as complete unknowns to Sun, before going on to become powerhouse forces in the music world.
Each man's career is tied together through the owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips (Christopher Grant), an extraordinarily talented recruiter whose unconventional ear discovered other famous artists such as Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty. Phillips underwent financial difficulties as the owner of Sun, selling Elvis' contract to RCA Records in order to produce first records for his other artists (including Johnny Cash).
The story of Sun Records, of a self-made man fighting the corporations creating generic popular music tastes, is certainly compelling. But the real sell for this show is its incredible musicians. Each plays his instruments live, and all do an excellent job personifying their characters – a tough feat to pull off when they are impersonating some of music history's best known personas.
Million Dollar Quartet features some of the biggest hits of this era. Standouts for me included “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Hear You Knocking,” and the sublime a capella “Down By the Riverside.”
The vocal standout of this show was certainly Derek Keeling as Johnnie Cash, whose buttery low pedal tones electrified the audience like a blow dryer in a swimming pool. His performances were the least energized of the group, but well portrayed the unique style and thoughtful songwriting Cash is known for.
Not far behind was piano dynamo Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis. Dynamo is no exaggeration here – Kaye used every method possible to play his fiery pieces, including elbows, feet, props, and even sitting on top of his Baldwin upright and playing behind his back – no eyes, no pedals. He was a joy to watch.
As Elvis, Cody Slaughter had a dead-on look, voice, hip shimmy, and attitude. Vocally and instrumentally he was a bit shakier than the others, but I cannot imagine someone better physically suited for the part. Lee Ferris was also good as Carl Perkins, although not quite as scintillating as Keeling or Kaye.
Grant and Kelly Lamont (as Dyanne, Elvis' date) had fine performances and worked their relatively dry lines as well as possible. The background musicians were excellent, particularly Chuck Zayas, the bass player. By the finale number, Zayas was hand picking his strings to pieces at the front of the stage while Elvis stood on his instrument, generating an incredible sound and a visual that had the entire audience (literally) on their feet.
Million Dollar Quartet is an inventive form of concert. There's not much here for audiences seeking a thrilling plot, but it is a swingin' good time and a window into the challenges of having integrity and making money in the music industry. Anyone looking for a fabulous live concert should check it out.
+ For a look at upcoming Hennepin Theatre Trust performances visithennepintheatretrust.org/calendar.