In Review: The ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’ Feb. 21 at the Walton Arts Center

February 22nd, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Cody Slaughter, center, as Elvis and Derek Keeling, right, as Johnny Cash in the musical 'Million Dollar Quartet.' All photos by KEVIN KINDER, NWA Media.

How do you like your musical history lessons served?

With a smile, wink, nod and virtuoso performances that blur reality? Or with a by-the-book, professorial telling of events that took place more than 50 years ago?

The crowd gathered for the Fayetteville debut of the touring production “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Walton Art Center got plenty of the former and very little of the latter. The show takes a real event — an impromptu, unscheduled jam session by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis on Dec. 4, 1956 — and extrapolates it into a fast-paced, song-filled show.

The musical includes many of the songs the quartet recorded that day, including “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Peace in the Valley” and “Down By the Riverside.” The show is supplemented with several tunes that never found their way into the original recording, such as “Who Do You Love” and “I Walk the Line.”

Harrison native Cody Ray Slaughter as Elvis Presley

Historical inaccuracies aside, “Million Dollar Quartet” is populated, at least for the touring version that passed through Fayetteville, with a quartet of impersonators that border on uncanny, particularly Cody Ray Slaughter, a Harrison native, as Elvis Presley. He’s won awards as a Presley impersonator, and he showed why on Tuesday. Although slightly less so when offering scripted dialogue, and not song, his interpretation of Presley was spot on for each hip shake, lip curl and microphone bellow.

Likewise, Derek Keeling interpretation of Johnny Cash contained many of the singer’s nuances, such as Cash’s tendency to strum his guitar up the neck then down on the bridge in a swaying pattern. That’s something you might not notice unless you’ve watched hours of live performances by Cash, and it shows Keeling has done his homework.

Meanwhile, it shows I don’t know enough about Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis to make a judgment call on the performances of Lee Ferris or Martin Kaye, respectively, in those roles.

Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash

Both must be lauded in their musical abilities, with Ferris handling the lead guitar duties and Kaye playing piano with his hands, his feet and behind his back.

In the musical, it’s Ferris’ job to add the drama — Perkins is looking for a new hit as his “Blues Suede Shoes” has gone stale and is jealous of the success of the other performers. It’s Kaye’s job to provide the comic relief — his Jerry Lee Lewis is impetuous, sometimes crude and quick to tout his own talents. What I know about Lewis doesn’t mesh well with the onstage persona Kaye adopted, but that’s likely more a product of writing than acting — Kaye was consistent, funny and a prodigy on the keys.

The quartet has guests in the studio at almost all points, including a nearly equal billing from Sun Studio owner Sam Phillips, played by Christopher Ryan Grant. Presley’s girlfriend, Dyanne, played by Kelly Lamont, sings with the company and has a couple numbers of her own.

Alas, I wanted less of these asides — though well done — and more music. A jukebox musical’s goal is to move the audience from one song to the next in the quickest manner possible, but these story lines added little in the way of character depth. It speaks to the vocal talents of the actors that I wanted less talking and more rocking, or, rockabilly-ing, as it were. The halting approach presented in the stage show, with several songs split in two to make way for spoken asides, tempered enthusiasm for individual songs when the momentum started to build. Although, I must say in the musical’s defense that the original recording featured short cuts, multiple takes and quick pacing, too — it was an impromptu jam, after all.

Martin Kaye, left, as Jerry Lee Lewis and Lee Ferris, right, as Carl Perkins

My want for full songs may be why I thoroughly enjoyed the encore, and it’s no frills, all-music attack on a classic song for each member of the quartet: “Hound Dog” for Presley, “Ghost Riders” for Johnny Cash, “See You Later Alligator” for Perkins and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” for Jerry Lee Lewis.

The memories and reasons for those four being in the same studio together may fade away — read the convoluted Wikipedia entry, for instance — but the fundamental value of those songs never will.

And that’s the most important lesson of the show.

The show continues through Sunday at the Walton Arts Center.