Saturday, June 23, 2012

Million Dollar Quartet Rocks the Pantages

The cast of Million Dollar Quartet. Photos by Jeremy Daniel

History was made on December 4, 1956 when Sam Phillips brought together four superstars of rock and roll in an impromptu jam session in the Sun Records recording studio in Memphis. They were his “million dollar quartet,” Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley, and 
Million Dollar Quartet, playing at the Pantages Theatre, is the musical tribute to that night and to these four remarkable entertainers.

Most of the songs you’ll hear in Million Dollar Quartet weren’t actually recorded that night. The soundtrack from the session consists mainly of gospel and country songs and it captures the down home unpretentious joy of musicians kicking back, singing and playing for the pure joy of the music.

In Million Dollar Quartet it’s still all about the joy of music, although creators Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have chosen a much higher voltage set of songs to represent the night. What you’ll see are four electrifying performances and classic songs like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog,” and “Great Balls of Fire” recreated by four terrific musicians.

Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins and Cody Slaughter as Elvis Presley

Cody Slaughte
r has Presley’s signature hip shaking and swaggering mannerisms down to a T and he should. He was named Elvis Presley Enterprises’ Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist of 2011 and cuts quite a figure as the King of Rock and Roll in this more vulnerable moment in his career. Lee Ferris plays the King of Rockabilly, Carl Perkins, and turns in some pretty dynamic guitar picking over the course of the night.

Slaughter with Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash

The Man in Black is
 Derek Keeling who was one of the most surprising performances in the show. When I closed my eyes I could have sworn I was listening to Johnny Cash himself; he’s that good at recreating Cash’s signature bass vocals. And as the cocksure, impertinent showman Jerry Lee Lewis, Martin Kaye is his own great ball of fire, full of piss and vinegar and ready to push Perkins’ buttons every chance he gets. Put all of these boys and this much talent in one studio and you’re sure to have a few sparks fly. 

Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis

Christoper Ryan Grant as Sam Phillips

Christopher Ryan Grant (Sam Phillips) narrates what story there is in Million Dollar Quartet. Though it’s really a showcase for the music, he relates how he discovered each of the legends and what it was like the moment he realized he had found a special one. No one could pick a winner like Phillips and hearing these stories provides a fascinating look behind the scenes.  

Slaughter with Kelly Lamont (Dyanne)

Kelly Lamont, in a hot pink dress and a sultry voice dripping with honey, balances out all the testosterone on stage with her steamy version of "Fever."

Each time the quartet sings in harmony the stage is bathed in a million dollar golden glow by lighting designer Howell Binkley. Set design by Derek McLane and costumes by Jane Greenwood visually bring the studio and the 50’s alive with vivid authenticity. I can also say the sound (by Kai Harada) in the Pantages has never been better. One after another, the boys rock out on their hits and you can hear them clear as a bell, a perfect blend of instruments and voices. Intimate songs like “Peace in the Valley,” that find the boys gathered around the piano with Elvis singing lead, are especially moving. The two remaining cast members include Chuck Zayas as Carl Perkins’ brother Jay on bass (and man can he slap that bass) and Billy Shaffer as Fluke on drums.

Directed by Eric Schaeffer, Million Dollar Quartet ramps up the energy over its one hour and fifty minutes (without an intermission) building toward one terrific finale. As their sequined jackets descend from the above, the lights flash, the audience screams, and they kick it into high gear for one of the best finales I can remember.

It is the legacy of the music that lives on long after a musician is gone. Sam Phillips got it right when he said, "This is where the sound of a man never dies.” In the case of the legendary Million Dollar Quartet, it's a moment in time when the sound of brilliance was captured forever. Million Dollar Quartet is a thrilling evening of iconic music played by outstanding actor/singers portraying legendary musicians. It doesn't get much better than that.

Million Dollar Quartet runs through July 1st at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets go to

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