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Theater Review (Washington DC): Million Dollar Quartet at the Kennedy Center

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“You can say it’s the devil’s music. You can say it ain’t music at all. But there are times when the boys are laying down tracks and they give it 10 percent more than what they thought they had. They know it and I know it. After they all go home, when I spin those tapes back and listen by myself I go, ‘My god, this is where the soul of a man never dies.’” Sam Phillips (Vince Nappo) in Million Dollar Quartet.

Audiences can relive a magical night in rock ‘n’ roll history as the Kennedy Center brings together four legends in one room: Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons), Johnny Cash (David Elkins), Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye), and Elvis Presley (Cody Slaughter).

 


Million Dollar Quartet at The Kennedy Center. Photo Credit Jeremy Daniel.

 

When these four came together on December 4th, 1956 at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records, Phillips dubbed this unusual group the “Million Dollar Quartet.” (This was when a million dollars meant something.) This show is more of a celebratory concert than a traditional musical. On that unique night each man was at a crossroads in his career.

Carl Perkins was having trouble finding his next hit record. Johnny Cash was at the end of his contract and didn’t know how to tell Phillips that he had just signed up with Columbia to do the gospel records he desperately wanted to do.

Jerry Lee Lewis had just signed on and was itching to make a name for himself. Elvis had just had a historic year of hits and success (1956), but felt lost. Even old Sam had decisions to make: RCA Records was pressing him hard to sell Sun and come work for them. With all of these secrets playing in the background, the show’s exuberant music takes on a layer of dread.

 


Cody Slaughter as Elvis Presley in Million Dollar Quartet. Photo Credit Jeremy Daniels.

 

This show features a fabulous soundtrack of classic hits. All four get a chance to showcase their signature songs including “I Walk the Line” (Cash), “Long Tall Sally” (Perkins), “That’s All Right” (Elvis), and of course “Great Balls of Fire” (Lewis). Elvis’s date for the evening, Dyanne (Kelly Lamont), even gets in on the action with a sexy version of “Fever.”

The performers don’t just impersonate each classic artist, they inhabit these larger-than-life personalities. While the story is thin, it does a great job of setting the scene and transitioning into each song and number. Nappo does an amazing job of showcasing Phillips’s passion for the music that he helped create and for his boys. He clearly loves this character and it shines through.

Out of these four personalities, none was bigger than the bold, brassy fresh-off-the-farm Jerry Lee Lewis. Martin Kaye plays him with such exuberance, reckless abandon, and fun that it is hard not to get swept up. Whenever the show threatens to get serious there’s Lewis to give the show a lift. It’s amusing to see him and Perkins duel it out both verbally and musically. Lewis just rubbed Perkins the wrong way and his comment that “88 keys beats 6 strings anyday,” didn’t win him any friends. It would be fun to have been a fly on the wall and know if the personality clashes that happen in the show were real.

Set designer Derek McLane does an excellent job of recreating a mall, intimate environment. The stage is sparse and there is no orchestra, just an upright bass player, Jay Perkins (Corey Kaiser), Fluke the Drummer (Billy Shaffer), and the “legends” in their prime. The show’s minimalist production values help reinforce the idea that “there’s no faking it here folks.”

Additional creative team members for the national tour include lighting designer Howell Binkley, costume designer Jane Greenwood, sound designer Kai Harada, musical arranger and superviser Chuck Mead, and direction by co-writer Floyd Mutrux.

At a little over 90 minutes the show zips by and doesn’t make you feel like it needed any more story. That’s primarily because once the show ends, the real concert begins: a rousing, 20-minute post-show concert featuring all four. Million Dollar Quartet is the show you take the entire family to, including the folks who “hate” or “refuse” to see musicals. And it is for fans of rock ‘n’ roll history.

Million Dollar Quartet runs in the Eisenhower Theater evenings at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday from December 18, 2012 to January 6, 2013 with matinee performances at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. There is an additional evening performance on Monday, December 31 at 8:30 p.m. which includes admission to the Kennedy Center’s New Year’s Eve party in the Grand Foyer. There is no performance on Tuesday, January 1, 2013. Tickets are $55 and up and available for purchase online, at the Kennedy Center box office, or by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600. Patrons living outside the Washington metropolitan area may dial toll-free at (800) 444-1324 or can visit the website.

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About Michelle Alexandria