Million Dollar Quartet
June 20th, 2013
Apollo Theatre, Chicago, IL
I have always had a fascination with musical talent scouts like Ahmet Ertegun, Berry Gordy, and Sam Phillips, who discovered and were able to identify talent when they saw it and capitalize on it time and time again. So I was excited to see the musical Million Dollar Quartet, not just for the reliving of a legendary night in rock ‘n’ roll history, but also to see a little bit more into the character of Sam Phillips, who for all intents and purposes is the main protagonist in the musical, even if the picture is a shallow and glamourized portrait of the famous musical producer. I found the musical to really highlight the charisma of Phillips and be a thrilling live musical performance from start to finish.
For those unfamiliar, Million Dollar Quartet is a musical based on a magical night in rock ‘n’ roll history, December 4, 1956, where four Sun Records artists and now musical legends Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis all came together for an impromptu jam session at Sun Records Studios in Nashville. While the original session was mostly country and gospel tunes, the musical version finds the four rock legends busting through a ton of their hits, all strewed around a loose plot about Sam Phillips possibly leaving Sun Records for RCA and Johnny Cash’s impending contract. While the plot is sort of beside the point, it is functional enough to keep the musical moved along and to bring together each song in what is essentially a 1.5 hour set from a phenomenal rockabilly cover band.
My wife and I arrived just on time, and to our surprise, had first row seats to the musical, which was much to her chagrin, because she was convinced we would be bothered by the performers, which of course we ended up happening. We sat right behind the frantic Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator and his piano, and during Carl Perkins’ “See You Later, Alligator”, Lewis turned the microphone to my wife and I to sing, which is pretty funny if you know my wife. She was just happy she wasn’t asked by Elvis to shake her hips though. Of the performers, we found the actors playing Sam Phillips and Jerry Lee Lewis to be the best, which is odd considering they were the two substitute actors for the night: Colte Julian in for Lance Lipinsky as Jerry Lee Lewis and Michael Monroe Goodman (a surefire Bruce Campbell look-a-like) in for Tim Decker as Sam Phillips. Part of this may have just been they have the most charismatic characters in the show, but it could also have to do with these actors really shining in the rare spotlight that they have.
The live music is what really shines in Million Dollar Quartet. All the music is played completely live with the four front men backed by a playful rhythm section, and they do a great job reviving the music legends famous moves, from Elvis’s hip shaking to Cash aiming his guitar like a shotgun, to Lewis’s all-out piano hysterics. Vocally, some of the members clearly aren’t up to matching the artists they are impersonating, but the Cash and Presley impersonators come pretty close. The set reaches its peak on the two gospel numbers “Down By The Riverside” and “Peace in the Valley” with just the four harmonizing together, and also with Lewis and Presley’s most rip-roaring songs, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, “That’s All Right”, ‘ and “Hound Dog”. What does occasionally fail is the cheesiness implicit with the script, which overdoes cheesy “insider” jokes like Elvis saying he will never play more than a night in Vegas and Johnny Cash saying “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man.” These give the audiences a little chuckle, but the cheapness and cheese takes away from the heart of the musical.
As a whole, Million Dollar Quartet makes for one of the more fun and amusing musicals I have seen, filled with thrilling live performances and a rare glimpse into a rock ‘n’ roll night for the ages.