There’s a scene in “Million Dollar Quartet” where Sun Records owner Sam Phillips gathers the incredible foursome — Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis — for a group photo.
He says they had better take a photo or no one would believe the impromptu 1956 jam session ever really happened. As the flash bulb flickers, the lights go dim and a large sepia-toned photo comes into focus. It’s the original. There, standing around a beat-up piano are four incredible legends, unknowingly posing for one of the most incredible nights in rock ‘n’ roll history.
Everything about “Million Dollar Quartet,” which opened Tuesday night at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, is slightly unbelievable. The incredible coincidence that these legends (before they were legends) just so happened to be in the same place at the same time before heading off in different directions. The snapshot in time that began the building blocks of the future Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. The fact that this was the first — and only — time these magnificent worlds collided.
And above all, perhaps, the way the mega-talented performers of “Quartet” were able to embody the stars and the innocence of that night.
The cast in this show is incredible — true triple threats. Beyond taking on these intimidating roles and capturing the characters, they pack some powerful vocals and master their instruments without flaw.
Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye) was a true treat. His naivety and innocence blended perfectly with his over-the-top persona of the original piano man, overly eager to jump in with both feet. His skills on the piano were beyond impressive and made you wonder how tickling the ivories in such a manner didn’t result in broken digits.
Derek Keeling’s Johnny Cash was like a gentle giant — quiet and laid back until faced with a microphone. His rich, deep vocals were smooth and soul-stirring — and impossibly low. He nailed Cash’s calm demeanor and even captured his wandering guitar strumming and mannerisms.
Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins was entertaining, pitch-perfect and embodied the heart of a performer ready for his next big break after a few bumps in the road. One primarily delivered by Mr. Presley, after he took Perkins’ hit “Blue Suede Shoes” and made it mainstream via Ed Sullivan.
Presley, played by incredible look-a-like Cody Slaughter, comes in with the swagger and Hollywood glamor of a freshly famous soon-to-be-King singer and new film star, with a beauty named Dyanne wrapped tightly on his arm. His arrogance fades only slightly as he settles back in with his Sun Records clan but the Elvis moves remain throughout. Slaughter captures Elvis’ swinging hips with ease and quietly masks his inner fears of a growing career in the most believable way.
Scott Moreau’s Sam Phillips (which was a seemingly last-minute stand-in for usual lead Christopher Ryan Grant) was mostly on-point but had a few slip ups here and there — which, if it was last-minute, is more than understandable. His struggle between staying a big fish in a small pond or moving to a cushy job in a New York skyscraper was heartfelt and touching, while continuing his alter-ego of a successful one-man-band company.
The flow of the performance was effortless as the story unfolds of the historic night, intermixed with flashes from “the first time they met.” Our leader, Phillips, occasionally breaks the fourth wall to remind us of the significance of his discoveries and the fresh-faced kids who came knocking on his door.
The entire performance was non-stop entertainment with peaks of pure joy. I brought my father along since he was 13 on that fateful night and has since been to two Elvis concerts (one when he was thin, one when he was fat, he says). The expression on his face throughout the show really summed up the purpose — a reminder of the greatness that was and an appreciation of the creation of good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll.
Following that iconic photo’s perfect placement, the show closed and the real concert began. All four took the stage as four glittering jackets dropped from above and a sea of lights filled the backdrop. All that was left was the music.
(Editor’s note: The evening was perfectly packaged with a true treat — one of two people still alive that was present in that very room graced the stage to tell a few stories and show he’s still got it. W.S. Holland, the drummer that day in December of 1956 (and Johnny Cash’s drummer for nearly 40 years) came on stage for a one-time-only performance. Holland recalled pulling practical jokes on Elvis (tainting his new Cadillac with the putrid smells of dead fish) and the many years of playing with Mr. Cash before he settled into his drum set to wow the crowd on a final performance of “Matchbox.” Unfortunately, we were the one and only crowd to get a glimpse of Holland’s rock drumming but his legacy surely lives on and continues to inspire all.)
“Million Dollar Quartet” runs through April 1 at the State Theatre in Minneapolis. Tickets range between $35 to $89. For tickets or more information, check out the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s website.
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