By Manning Harris
The Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Atlanta series is presenting the musical “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Fox Theatre through March 17.
The theatre program says “Time: December 4, 1956; Place: Sun Records, Memphis.” For rock ‘n’ roll historians—or just devoted fans—this is a sacred date. One of the greatest jam sessions in recording history took place, largely by coincidence: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley all converged at Sam Phillips’ ramshackle Sun Records one afternoon to shoot the breeze, sing, play, conduct business, and inadvertently make history.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is performed in 95 minutes, no intermission. With these names performing, that’s a lot of bang for your buck. As I entered the Fox, the usher told my companion and me, “Now don’t leave when you think the show’s over; something special happens.” She was most kind, and she was right. Sorry, I can’t tell you what she meant (I don’t do spoilers), but it’s quite spectacular.
Obviously, actors play the parts of these musical legends. But they are quite wonderful, and they do their own singing and playing. Ben Goddard as a brash, young Jerry Lee Lewis is perhaps first among equals: His athletic piano playing alone is almost worth the price of admission.
The show is narrated by Sam Phillips (Vince Nappo), the creator and owner of Sun Records, and the “father of rock ‘n’ roll,” as he is called during the evening. All four of the big-name musicians had their start at this little studio. Phillips has already had to sell the 21-year-old Elvis’ (Cody Slaughter) contract to RCA in order to keep Sun Records solvent; but there are no hard feelings, for the savvy Phillips recognized immediately that Elvis was a show business phenomenon, far too big for Sun Records to handle.
Carl Perkins (James Barry) wasn’t as big as the other three, but he wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” (among others) and was a definite force in the business. David Elkins’ Johnny Cash is beautifully sung and performed. Phillips hopes to sign Cash for an additional three years on his contract, but bigger studios are calling.
Elvis’ girlfriend of the moment, Dyanne (Kelly Lamont), is the sole female presence in the show; she sings a sultry, haunting version of “Fever.”
You probably want to know what songs are performed. Too many to list, I’m afraid, but here are a few: “Matchbox,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Memories Are Made of This,” “That’s All Right,” “Peace in the Valley,” “I Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
How many of these songs were actually sung on December 4, 1956, is debatable. Probably more spirituals were sung, casually, as the four harmonized. A recording of at least part of the impromptu session exists and is available—I would assume.
This show does not possess great dramatic tension; what it does project is an eerie authenticity. It’s as though the audience is paying homage to the legends and wants to believe, for the moment, that it is really Johnny Cash or Elvis performing. Theatre folks talk about the “willing suspension of disbelief”; there’s a lot of that in “Million Dollar Quartet.” Incidentally, the show continues to enjoy long runs in Chicago and Las Vegas. It played over a year on Broadway in 2010-2011.
It’s at the Fox through March 17. The show is directed by Eric Schaeffer. For more information and tickets, visit foxtheatre.org.