I’m not a clap-along person. I grew up Missouri Synod Lutheran; Norwegian and German blood courses through my veins. Needless to say, it takes a pretty significant occasion to make me feel comfortable enough to bust out my moves (read: sway back and forth and maybe, maybe, sing along). So the fact that the end of Million Dollar Quartet found me on my feet full-out clapping and belting out “Great Balls of Fire” should tell you everything you need to know about this show: It’s magical.
To be fair, the magic really only takes full effect if you dig the oldies: Elvis Presley’s velvety voice, Johnny Cash’s deep and dark gospel, Carl Perkins’s rockabilly flare, Jerry Lee Lewis’s hyperactive piano pounding. That is what the show’s all about, after all: the night of December 4, 1565, when Sun Records founder (and the man who discovered all four of these musical prodigies) Sam Phillips brought these incredible talents together to jam for the first and only time in history.
As someone whose first cassette tape was Elvis and who still prefers tunes from the ’50s and ’60s over today’s top 40 hits, the story alone was enough to get me excited. But Lee Ferris (Carl Perkins), Derek Keeling (Johnny Cash), Martin Kaye (Jerry Lee Lewis), and Cody Slaughter (Elvis Presley) gave such impressive performances—not only did they sound, look, and act like the iconic music figures they were portraying, but they also played their respective instruments live and didn’t miss a beat—that when a clip from the actual recording session was broadcast at the end of the show, you could barely notice the difference.
Impersonating Elvis and Cash is a tricky gig, one that many have tried (and failed) at. Such isn’t the case with Slaughter and Keeling. Both these actors/musicians nail their roles as the King and Man in Black—so much so that if you were play their takes of “Walk the Line” and “Hound Dog” alongside the originals, chances are good you wouldn’t be able to tell the two apart.
Keeping the show to 95 minutes (no intermission) was a smart choice by current director Eric Schaeffer and original director/creator Floyd Mutrux: While I could have happily listened to the quartet sing and play for hours, it keeps the story moving at a fast enough clip that you don’t run the risk of getting bored while covering all the necessary basics. The gist of the show is that Sam Phillips (played opening night by understudy Scott Moreau) is trying to sign Cash to a three-year contract while simultaneously attempting to get Perkins another number-one hit, keep in touch with Elvis (whom he sold to RCA records in 1955), and figure out what to do with up-and-coming talent Jerry Lee Lewis. Also in the scene are bass player Jay Perkins (Chuck Zayas), drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland (Billy Shaffer), and Elvis’s current love interest, Dyanne (Kelly Lamont). While these three don’t get as much attention paid to them, none should be overlooked—they’re just as talented as everyone else on stage.
Some shows need a powerful storyline to carry them forward. Others need a key central character with which the audience can relate. And then there are shows like Million Dollar Quartet, where all one needs to do is find the right players to tap into the magic of historical moments past. This cast has done just that. And if it can make me, a straight-laced Norwegian Lutheran, clap and sing among hundreds of strangers, I can only imagine what it will do for you.
Million Dollar Quartet
Through April 1
State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-339-7007