Legends, lessons and rock: Million Dollar Quartet at Straz 

Some thoughts on the big nostalgia musical.

Let’s call a spade a spade: I am somewhere between 20 and 30. Although I knew I’d be traveling down memory lane when getting dolled up to see Million Dollar Quartet, I was equally aware it was not going to be my own. Thanks to growing up with my father, a seasoned man well into his 60s, and the soundtrack of his close relationship with music vaguely playing in the background, I still felt the buzz of excitement for what I was about to experience.

Hardly unknown to anyone, the four legends of Rock ’n’ Roll: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash did incite some jam session expectations of what I was hoping would wake the rhythm in my hips and tickle the bounce in my feet. The musical numbers delivered on some, like Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”, Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” but disappointed on others. I mean, come on. No “Man In Black?” Johnny Cash IS the man in black. How about Elvis’ “All Shook Up” or “Love Me Tender?” These are classic opportunities for the Elvis-gyrating-hip I’m aware of, or was it mostly in his knees?

Anyway, many more numbers went straight over my head (like most of Carl Perkins’ songs) but evidenced in the reactions reverberated with the audience, which was comprised mostly of my father and his siblings’ peers.

Although many in the audience could probably remember reading and/or hearing about the night the Million Dollar Quartet gathered at Sun Records in December of 1956, I didn’t even know such a night had occurred. The musical’s approach to conveying the impact of that night on music was effective, to say the least.

Some background: The production, which originated in Chicago in 2008 before transferring to Broadway, was directed by Eric Schaeffer and features a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. It won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical and received Tony nominations for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical (Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux).

In the touring production now at the Straz, I appreciated the smooth lighting changes that introduced the story of each legend. What better way to touch on the legends' beginnings than centering the stories on their arrival that December night at Sun Records, where it all began?

I can only imagine the pressure on the company of filing the shoes of these cultural icons. Christopher Ryan Grant portrayed Sam Phillips; he was the lead to every interaction, every background story and had to carry his character’s own plot development as Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins revealed they were leaving Sun Records. I enjoyed watching him, from his body language to his projection and delivery. He wasn't just playing the part of Sam Phillips for those two hours; he was Sam Phillips. Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis and Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash were also memorable in their portrayal of the icons. Others in the company came across a bit stiff, whether because they were still uncomfortable with the roles or had not yet developed them enough to make it look like they were not acting.

Comic relief came by way of the vivacious Jerry Lee Lewis/Martin Kaye. He was bouncy, electrifying and an obvious audience favorite. There were sprinkles of 1950’s references (Shecky Green?), which I would have missed altogether had it not been for the incredibly convenient and vocal audience member sitting just behind me, who seemed to explain every joke to her companion, clearly someone either in my age bracket or equally as ignorant.

I was introduced to said audience member when Elvis Presley arrived and gifted Sam Phillips with a bottle. Sam thanked him, read the label and the entire audience erupted in laughter, except me. Apparently, it was an expensive scotch, which Sam Phillips pronounced incorrectly. Thank you, vocal audience member!

The close was sentimental, with a large screen projecting the actual black and white picture of the Million Dollar Quartet from that one and only night, complemented by a collective moment of silence, which was broken by an audience member sighing, "Aw," near me (not the vocal one, ironically). The final numbers were delivered in concert style, with flashy jackets dropped from up above and each legend taking his turn center stage.

It was evident from the buzz throughout the audience that it was indeed the '50s again. Everyone had left 2012 for a while on the first Tuesday night of the year for a vivid two-hour stroll down the '50s memory lane. I left feeling nostalgic for a time I never experienced, aware I may have missed being a witness to something magical, but satisfied with the sounds Million Dollar Quartet left in my head and with the list of new songs to upload on my iPod.

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