MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET
By Gary Murray
Book by Colin Escott & Floyd Muturx
Featuring Lee Ferris, Derek Keeling, Cody Slaughter, Kelly Lamont, Billy Shaffer, Chuck Zayas and Christopher Ryan Grant
On December 4, 1956 there was a jam session with four rockers at a little recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee. That is not such an unusual experience, musicians tend to get together and play. The four men who attended this little session became four titans of music. The players are Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley and the studio was Sun Records.
A picture of that night was taken by Sam Phillips, the owner of the company and man who discovered Elvis. The group was dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet and it was a night that changed music history. The play Million Dollar Quartet gives of a dramatization of that evening. The work plays at the Music Hall at Fair Park as a part of the Dallas Summer Musical program.
The stage is a mockup of the legendary studio. A recording booth is on the right side of the space and the main part of the stage has guitars and amps. To the left of the stage is an upright piano. The play opens with Sam Phillips (played by Christopher Ryan Grant) who lets us know that Elvis is coming to the studio to visit. Phillips plays both our narrator and the catalyst for the meeting.
Each of the young men has an agenda. Elvis wants to come back and record at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips behind the boards. Jerry Lee Lewis just wants to make hit records. Carl Perkins is looking for a follow-up to his hit “Blue Suede Shoes”. Johnny Cash has a decision to make about re-signing a contract with Sun. All of the players are just simple country boys who have a massive degree of talents. Sam Phillips is also being tempted by the major labels. These plot threads weave in and around the music.
It is the music that makes Million Dollar Quartet a show not to be missed. The musicians on stage are actually playing all the instruments. It is almost a rockabilly concert experience when these guys bang on the guitars and piano. The show starts with “Blue Suede Shoes” and ends two hours later with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. During the night, we are treated to songs such as “That’s All Right”, “Long Tall Sally” and “Hound Dog”.
Of the four leads Martin Kaye is heads above his contemporaries. His Jerry Lee Lewis is spot on in both playing ability and acting prowess. He doesn’t try to impersonate Jerry Lee but lives in his shoes. There is this spark in his every movement on stage that translates to genuine affection between audience and performer. Lee Ferris plays Carl Perkins but never finds the flare on stage, just with his guitar. He may not be able to act the part of Carl but he sure knows his way around the fret-board.
Arguably the hardest role if the evening is by Cody Slaughter who takes on Elvis Presley—the King of Rock and Roll. There have been many actors who have played Elvis in movies and on television. He tries to make it his own role but is becomes an almost Herculean task. There are moments when he is spot on as E and other moments that feel like a caricature.
Derek Keeling gives Johnny Cash a much more subtle reading, which works very well for the ‘man in black’. He finds real sympathy in the reading, showing the painful decision the young man had to make all those years ago.
The biggest surprise is Kelly Lamont as Carla, Elvis Presley’s show girl girlfriend. She gets two different numbers to shine and they are both show stopping moments. Her rendition of “Fever” just smokes with a sultry vibe. She belts the tune with the rocking raunch of one of those belters on ‘race records’ of the 1950’s. She takes the tune, nailing it to the Sun studio walls and showing that women can function in this boy’s club. Her second number is “I Hear you Knocking” and she again proves that she can hold her own in the male dominated studio. It is almost worth the price of admission to see her sing these numbers. You just want to hear her do more on the stage.
The entire experience is much more like a performance than a play. When the ending concert happens, the audience was on their feet cheering on the musicians on stage. Million Dollar Quartet is a wonderful experience and a play that should not be missed.