It takes you thrillingly by surprise, that first glance at Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins onstage together, and from then on the excitement never lags in Million Dollar Quartet, Tony-nominated as Best Musical of 2010 and now touring the country, its latest stop at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts.

Part of the thrill of seeing this ’50s Fab Four together is in imagining what it might have been like had they actually assembled on one stage for the concert of their lives. Million Dollar Quartet makes that fantasy come true, and what’s more, it’s based on an actual date in history—December 4, 1956—when Presley, Cash, Lewis, and Perkins all gathered at the studios of Sun Records simply to jam.

A fifth real-life rock-and-roll great joined them that December day, and that man was record executive/producer Sam Phillips, the man who discovered them and helped make them stars on his Sun Records label, only to lose them one by one to RCA, Colombia, and other biggies.

By December 4, 1956, Phillips had already sold Elvis’s contract to RCA, a case of desperate measures needed to keep a financially beleaguered Sun Records afloat. On that fateful day in December (or at least as Million Dollar Quartet’s book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott would have it), Phillips lost two more of the foursome to major labels, with only the promise of Lewis’s incipient stardom to cushion the blow.

I wasn’t expecting to love Million Dollar Quartet. 1950s rock isn’t a genre I listen to by choice. I’m not an Elvis fan, or a Johnny fan or a Jerry Lee fan or a Carl fan either. A show revolving around the four of them seemed to promise little more than performances of songs that don’t make my playlist of choice.

 How wrong I was. I may not be in love with ‘50s rock and roll, but seeing and hearing it performed live by Cody Slaughter (as Elvis), Derek Keeling (as Johnny), Martin Kaye (as Jerry Lee), and Lee Farris (as Carl) proved so downright thrilling that I became the genre’s biggest fan, or at least throughout the show’s hour-and-forty-minute running time, with no intermission to slow things down.

I didn’t expect there to be so much “book” either, and though it’s not your basic musical theater plotline, Mutrux and Escott have created a through-story that proves involving from start to finish. Sam (Christopher Ryan Grant) first takes us back in time to the moment each of the four first entered his life. Then, once they are all assembled in his studio along with Elvis’s girlfriend du jour (Kelly Lamont as “Dyann”), we become flies on the Sun Studio’s fourth wall awaiting news that’s sure to turn Sam Phillips’ life around, though unfortunately not as he had imagined.

That’s not to say that Million Dollar Quartet is ever a downer. The hits just keep on coming and coming, from “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Folsom Prison Blues” to “Sixteen Tons” to “Long Tall Sally” to “I Walk The Line” to “Great Balls Of Fire” to “Hound Dog” to “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”—with many more in between. And taking a cue from Mamma Mia, Million Dollar Quartet ends with a live mini-concert that gives each of its four stars his encore moment in the spotlight.

Under Eric Schaeffer’s electric direction, all four leads convince us that they are indeed the superstars whose songs they’re performing, three of the four accompanying themselves on guitar (electric and acoustic) and Kaye’s Jerry Lee dazzling us again and again with his rock-and-roll piano virtuosity.

It’s hard to imagine Broadway’s Elvis being any more spot-on than dead ringer Slaughter, the 20-year-old Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist of 2011, making as auspicious a theatrical debut as you’re likely to see any time soon. Keeling, who’s played Elvis stand-in Chad in All Shook Up, captures Johnny’s signature basso voice and Man In Black persona to perfection. Fewer audience members are likely to have an image in mind for the lesser-known Carl, but if he was anything like Ferris portrays him, it’s no wonder he became a rockabilly star. Lamont is a stunner too in her sexy ‘50s pencil skirt, and gets two solos (“Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking”) that give the men a run for their money. Finally, there’s Kaye’s sassy, scrappy Jerry Lee, an outrageously infectious performance that includes the very same flamboyant tickling of the ivories that became Lewis’s trademark. No wonder Levi Kreis won a Tony for originating Jerry Lee on Broadway. The role is a humdinger, and to make Kaye’s award-worthy work all the more astounding, the bloke is a real-life Englishman!

Drummer Billy Shaffer (as Fluke) and bass player Chuck Zayas (as Carl Perkins’ brother Jay) provide expert onstage backup.

Last but not least, there’s Grant’s authentic, multilayered dramatic turn as Sam, a rock-and-roll legend in his own right and given his very own place in the Sun here.

Derek McLane’s scenic design recreates Sam Phillips’ studio in intricate detail all the way to the reel-to-reel tape recorder spinning in the control room throughout. Howell Binkley’s stunning lighting design, Jane Greenwood’s spot-on costumes, and Kai Harada’s impeccable sound design add to the touring production’s terrific look and feel, as do Tom Watson’s hair and wig design.

Musical arrangements and supervision are by Chuck Mead. Michael Keller is music contractor, David Ruttura associate director, David Lober production stage manager, and Michael Krug stage manager.

 Million Dollar Quartet is that rarity, a show that is truly for music lovers of all ages, from teens, who can’t help but respond to the excitement of a genre that transformed the world of pop music overnight, to their septuagenarian or even octogenarian grandparents. (Johnny and Carl would be 80 today and Elvis 77, and Jerry Lee Lewis is still going strong in 2012 at age 76.) I may not have believed that I’d find myself falling under Million Dollar Quartet’s spell, but to paraphrase Neil Diamond (or Micky Dolenz if you will), Million Dollar Quartet has made me a believer!

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
April 24, 2012
Photos: Jeremy Daniels

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