Goodness gracious great balls of fire! One night. Sun Records studio. And the four great legends of music— December 4, 1956 brought together ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ ‘The Man in Black,’ ‘The Father of Rockabilly,’ and ‘The Killer’ for one incredible impromptu jam session the likes of which the world will never forget. Broadway Across America is proud to present, as a part of the Hippodrome Broadway Series, Million Dollar Quartet. Directed by Eric Schaeffer with book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, this show brings that legendary night of recording to exuberant life with an electrifying tale of four superstars and the man who started it all, the ‘father of rock ‘n’ roll’ Sam Phillips.
It’s all about the music. Blended seamlessly with the look of 1956 this production has it all. The actors, outfitted by 17-time Tony Award-nominated Costume Designer Jane Greenwood and accentuated with the Hair and Wig Designs of Tom Watson, fit the bill from the perfectly coifed locks of Elvis right down to the zany red pants of Jerry Lee Lewis. You see them before you hear them and creating that visual image of these rock ‘n’ roll legends is as important as having them sound the part. Greenwood and Watson leave no detail unattended in their flawless recreations of the singers, Presley and Cash in particular. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to seeing these long gone performers live and no Vegas strip stand-in could look better.
The music is blaring, but most importantly it’s live and real. The actors aren’t just actors singing their hearts out, they’re live musicians playing every note you hear up on the stage. Elvis and Johnny really strum their guitars, while Jerry Lee lights up that piano like the sky on the fourth of July. Musical Arrangements and Supervision are provided by Chuck Mead, and they are stunning; the life and energy that flows from these performers into those instruments and out to the audience, nothing short of astonishing.
Just listening to such a jam session is incredible in its own right but what makes this show a notch above is that the audience gets their personal tour guide to the happenings of Sun Records from that night. Sam Phillips (Vince Nappo) is the charming recording mogul that started it all. Nappo approaches the character with a sense of duty to the narration aspect of it, drumming up the audience’s appreciation for ‘the boys’ as he affectionately refers to them, whenever they play a solo number. His stories are rich and earthy, down home and realistic as he spins his yarns at the audience of what it was like and what he experienced. Nappo crafts a dynamic character that drives the non-musical action of the performance, and gives you a roller coaster of ‘feel good’ balanced perfectly with little dashes of sorrow and reality. A perfect presentation given that he is the only performer on stage not to sing or pick up an instrument.
There’s a special treat mixed in with the four big boys during this jam session and she comes in the form of Elvis’s latest arm candy, Dyanne (Kelly Lamont). While only singing a song or two, the songs that she sings are dynamite! Lamont takes to the stage singing “Fever” with a sultry slinky air to her voice, very reminiscent of Eartha Kitt meets Marilyn Monroe; oozing that sensual feeling of a late-night longue club singer. But when she switches things up for “I Hear You Knocking” Lamont slams the audience with a blast of “Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma’am!” and belts those notes loud and clear.
Leader of the pack Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons) rocks a mean guitar, showing those strings who’s boss. Lyons hits those cords hard for “Matchbox” and really spices it up when he gets into his groove with “See You later Alligator.” The constant one-upmanship with Jerry Lee Lewis is hysterical as Lyons holds his own against the card cut-up character. His voice is as powerful as the instrument he’s playing and when his temper snaps it rivals the sun in those flare-ups.
Coming in as the spitting image of Elvis Presley is Cody Slaughter, so much so that if you didn’t know better you’d swear they’d raised The King up from the great beyond to play the role himself. Slaughter has mastered the body language of Elvis, flipping those hips and scooting his feet all across the stage, swinging his pelvis about as he rocks and rolls and belts his numbers out. He perfects the sound of Elvis’s speech pattern when talking, low and slick, and when he flirts with the ladies in the audience you half expect someone to faint straight away. Slaughter’s big breaking number comes during “Hound Dog” when he lights a hunk of burning love into that guitar and wails away on it, bringing the audience to their feet in thunderous applause.
The Man in Black never looked so fine, Johnny Cash (David Elkins) in all his glory looking like a ghost floated up onto the stage, and when he starts to sing — it’s haunting. Elkins might as well be a recording of Cash for as similar as he sounds, especially when he sings the first lines of “Folsom Prison Blues” you literally get chills shooting up your spine. Elkins brings the audience swell after swell of emotions when he settles down into his gospel song “Down By The Riverside,” joined then by the company to completion. And he’s simply stunning when he lays thick into “Sixteen Tons” hitting those basement sounds as only Johnny Cash could. A simply marvelous performer that steals your heart and sends goosebumps all up and down your arms.
But the thunder of the show comes roaring in with the newcomer, Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye) It’s a wonder the piano didn’t spontaneously combust into flames for as hard and fast as he was laying into those keys all night long. Kaye has a vibrating rocket-like energy that keeps him bouncing and moving just like Lewis, so much so that he might just implode if he sits still. Kaye goes at it with a headstrong cocky confidence when butting heads with Carl Perkins but he never loses sight of the fun of the music. Just like the song he’s a “Real Wild Child” and his personality is comparable to his other big number “Great Balls of Fire.” Kaye’s feet ought to be credited as a separate performer for as much bouncing, moving and piano playing as they do; a tremendous feat to accomplish in true homage to the namesake he’s playing.
These four studs, aided by Jay Perkins (Corey Kaiser) on bass and Fluke (Bill Shaffer) on drums, make for one incredible night! A night you will never forget! And a night that you will most certainly regret missing if you don’t make it out to see this Million Dollar Quartet.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
Million Dollar Quartet plays a limited engagement through December 2, 2012 at The Hippodrome Theatre as part of the Hippodrome Broadway Series. The Hippodrome is located at 12 North Eutaw Street in downtown Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 547-7328, or by purchase them online.