On December 4, 1956, Carl Perkins went into Sun Studios in Memphis for a recording session with a new addition to his band, the young piano player Jerry Lee Lewis. Later in the day they were joined by two other artists who got their starts on Sun Records, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. The four musicians performed some songs together, and the next day a local writer dubbed the group the “Million Dollar Quartet.”
The Broadway musical of the same name takes some huge liberties with the facts of that day for the sake of drama, but that shouldn’t bother even the most fastidious rock and roll historians. “Million Dollar Quartet” is a fun, approachable musical and a loving tribute to the world’s first musical supergroup.
Playing through April 1 at the State Theatre, “Million Dollar Quartet” kicked off on March 27 with a late curtain and understudy Scott Moreau taking the key role of Sun Record’s Sam Phillips, but after the delay the show took off like a rocket and never looked back. Compared to other shows in the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Broadway season, “Million Dollar Quartet” is simple – it is a 90 minute show with a single set, a small cast and a straightforward storyline. That simplicity is a larger part of what makes the show work. All four of the leads play their own instruments as well as sing and act and each captures the essence of the legends they portray without delving into caricature. Martin Kaye nearly steals the show as the troublemaking Jerry Lee Lewis and Lee Ferris perfectly captures the sound of Carl Perkin’s guitar. Professional Elvis impersonator Cody Slaughter unsurprisingly captures the look and spirit of Elvis as well as his sound, right down to the dance moves. Derek Keeling’s Johnny Cash performance does fall a little short of the mark, in part because Keeling is a better singer than Cash ever was.
The contract negotiations of Cash and a potential sale of Sun Records to RCA provide some needed (but historically inaccurate) drama between the songs, but obviously the music is the real draw of the show. Each artist gets his moment in the spotlight with some of their best-known hits (even those that weren’t performed at the real session), as well as a wide selection of old gospel, blues and country numbers. With songs such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folson Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” “I Walk The Line,” “Long Tall Sally” and many more, there’s something for everyone, no matter which of the four artists is your favorite.
“Million Dollar Quartet” may not be a historically accurate recreation of the Sun Records recording session that brought together Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, but it certainly is a fun recreation of that once-in-a-lifetime event. For fans of rock and roll history, this is one show you won’t want to miss.