It would not be until the 17th song of the evening that the audience would hear the Carl Perkins tune, “Party,” but in every other way the party for Million Dollar Quartet began the moment the curtain went up last Tuesday on Opening Night at Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. With book by Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux, this latest in the GEXA Energy Broadway Series is above all a concert, but it has a sharp theatrical side as well. Mutrux developed the original concept and serves as director as this production presents the tale of the one-night gathering of four of rock-n-roll’s legendary figures, Elvis Presley (Cody Slaughter), Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris), Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling), and Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye). They were brought together by their Memphis mentor, promoter Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant), the owner of Sun Records. It was there that they all got their start, and there that on this December night in 1956 they would all take yet another step toward the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In the role of Phillips, Mr. Grant does a superb job of guiding us along during a story that consists mostly (and very effectively) of the songs that made these stars famous, while also focusing on the interesting relationships between them. We see the piano wild man, Jerry Lee, and Mr. Kaye’s performance captures both Jerry’s flaky spontaneity and his insecurity at not feeling as respected as the guitar players. We see the friction between Elvis and Carl that resulted from Elvis having a big hit with the “Blue Suede Shoes” song that Perkins felt would have been his hit, had it not been for an accident that interrupted his career. We learn how big money offers from the RCA and Columbia record companies are pulling the stars in new directions. The feisty Sam Phillips had already earned the title, “King of Fools” by selling Elvis to RCA for forty thousand dollars, and now he is distressed to learn that both Cash and Perkins are moving on to other deals. Jerry Lee remains and vows that he, too, will make it big. Ain’t that the truth? And Sam comforts himself with the knowledge that he has just signed, “…a funny looking guy named Roy Orbison.”
But all the while this story is revealing itself, the audience is being bombarded by the very best of early rock-n-roll from four performers who so closely resemble the look and sound of the real stars that you would swear you were present for the original jam session. Deep-voiced Keeling is the perfect Johnny Cash and seems to vocally supply his own built-in echo chamber. Handsome and hip-swinging Mr. Slaughter has the innocence, good looks and great sound of the early Presley. They are in great vocal company with the solid sounds of Mr. Ferris as Carl Perkins. And for sheer delicious rock-n-roll lunacy and fun we have the dazzling piano work and wild vocals of Mr. Kaye as the hyper-active Jerry Lee. Chuck Zayas on bass and Billy Shaffer on drums round out the sweet musical sounds that will fill the night.
For readers lucky enough to get any of the few remaining tickets, here is a sampling of the musical joys that await you. There is a rockin’ opener with a full company rendition of the aforementioned, “Blue Suede Shoes.” Jerry Lee offers a very wild, “Wild Child.” Perkins sends up a powerhouse, “Matchbox,” and follows with the thundering pulsations of, “Who Do You Love?” that fill the room. Keeling brings authoritative command to a truly remarkable take on the Cash classic, “Folsom Prison Blues,” under dreamy violet lighting.
Things then take a turn to the feminine side with the arrival of Elvis’ shapely and beautiful girlfriend, Dyanne, played with seductive grace by the velvet-voiced and verysexy, Kelly Lamont. She let loose with the steamy Peggy Lee classic, “Fever,” and the temperatures were definitely rising for the guys in the audience. Wow! Then Elvis dabbles a bit with Dino’s hit, “Memories Are Made of This,” but quickly shifts gears for an electrifying, “That’s All Right.” The four gents get the joint jumping when they team up for, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” and a touch of gospel music with, “Down By the Riverside.” Cash follows with bass richness as he sings, “Sixteen Tons,” and Perkins weaves in a bit of counterpoint magic joining with, “My Babe.” Elvis explodes with, “Long Tall Sally,” and then calms things down with a lovely, “Peace in the Valley.” Keeling does full justice to another Cash trademark with a stunning, “I Walk the Line,” and Miss Lamont returns for a soaring and fierce, “I Hear You Knocking.” With the festivities well underway, Perkins finally leads the company in the joyful energy of, “Party,” and really rocks the room.
Jerry Lee maintains the pace with pounding fury on the eighty-eight for a, “Great Balls of Fire,” that is really great! That could have been the end as the guys left the stage amid the cheers of a standing ovation. But it wasn’t the end of this trip back through time as the stars suddenly reappeared in colorful and glitzy Vegas-style sport coats for a terrific series of encores. To quote another hit song, “Oh, What a Night!”
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET continues at Houston’s Hobby Center through March 4th with 7:30pm performances Thursday & Sunday, 8pm performances Friday & Saturday, and 2pm matinees both Saturday & Sunday. For tickets & information call 800-982-ARTS or visit the website at www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com.