It was a day for rock history. December 4, 1956, saw the chance gathering of four music legends — Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis — in a recording studio in Memphis for an impromptu jam session. The album that resulted was dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet, a bold reference to the foursome’s perceived worth (before inflation, of course).
The memorable event has been recreated as Million Dollar Quartet Live, a musical complete with a cast of talented singer/musicians standing in for the legendary originals. The show has residencies at the Apollo Theatre in Chicago and Harrah’s Showroom in Las Vegas, and the national tour recently stopped at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.
The musical is based on fact: Rockabilly artist Carl Perkins had just released “Blue Suede Shows,” and went to the Sun Records studio to record some tracks with help from Jerry Lee Lewis, a local piano player who was just making a name for himself as a rock ‘n’ roll wildman. Elvis Presley, only 21 and riding the success of his first string of singles, made a casual visit with his girlfriend. Johnny Cash, who had just recorded his first country tracks in the same studio a year prior, dropped in to talk with studio owner and label founder Sam Phillips. And then the magic happened.
For fans intimately familiar with the original recording, the listening experience of the musical is vastly different. Presley leads the original 46-song jam session: his vocals dominate each song (there was only one microphone), along with rambling commentary and laughter in his signature drawl. The emphasis was on gospel, with lyrics focusing on Jesus, prayer and faith, in songs like “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” and “Jesus Walked that Lonesome Way.” It’s clear that the participants, despite their fame and collective “million dollar” worth, never thought the jam session would be released to the public. It’s the sound of talented friends casually making great music and sharing vices, from joking about Jesus to drinking and smoking.
The musical strays from fact by incorporating each musician’s career-defining singles, from Cash’s “Walk the Line” to Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Presley’s “Hound Dog.” A fictional character named Dyanne (a more interesting version of Presley’s real date, Marilyn Evans), played by Kelly Lamont, delivers a venue-shaking rendition of “Fever” — ironically the most memorable performance of the night.
Only three of the musical’s 21 songs — “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Peace in the Valley” and “Down by the Riverside” — are from the original recording. The cast does a great service to the latter, singing in harmony while clapping, with Tyler Hunter as Elvis strumming the simple rhythm.
The musical also functions a mini-history lesson on the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll. Phillips, played by Vince Nappo, narrates under spotlight between songs, explaining how other record companies were wary of supporting rock musicians in the 1950s. He alone felt the genre is “not just a phase, it’s a revolution.” As the man who first recorded the foursome, Phillips portrays himself as a mastermind and the true star of the show.
Million Dollar Quartet Live is worthy entertainment for fans of the original foursome. The cast, principally Tyler Hunter as Presley, Scott Moreau as Cash, John Countryman as Lewis, and James Barry as Carl Perkins, is convincing — down to Moreau’s all-black outfit in Cash’s signature style and Hunter’s swinging hips. The show will be back in the area by the late spring and summer, with stops in Wilmington, Delaware in May and four show in upstate New York in June.