February 22nd, 2012 at 12:42 pm
How do you like your musical history lessons served?
With a smile, wink, nod and virtuoso performances that blur reality?Â 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 âMillion Dollar Quartetâ at the Walton Art Center got plenty of the former and very little of the latter. The show takes a real event â an impromptu, unscheduled jam session by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis on Dec. 4, 1956 â and extrapolates it into a fast-paced, song-filled show.
The musical includes many of the songs the quartet recorded that day, including âBrown Eyed Handsome Man,â âPeace in the Valleyâ and âDown By the Riverside.â The show is supplemented with several tunes that never found their way into the original recording, such as âWho Do You Loveâ and âI Walk the Line.â
Historical inaccuracies aside, âMillion Dollar Quartetâ 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. Heâs 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 Cashâs tendency to strum his guitar up the neck then down on the bridge in a swaying pattern. Thatâs something you might not notice unless youâve watched hours of live performances by Cash, and it shows Keeling has done his homework.
Meanwhile, it shows I donât 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.
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, itâs Ferrisâ job to add the drama â Perkins is looking for a new hit as his âBlues Suede Shoesâ has gone stale and is jealous of the success of the other performers. Itâs Kayeâs job to provide the comic relief â his Jerry Lee Lewis is impetuous, sometimes crude and quick to tout his own talents. What I know about Lewis doesnât mesh well with the onstage persona Kaye adopted, but thatâs likely more a product of writing than acting â 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. Presleyâs 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 â though well done â and more music. A jukebox musicalâs 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 musicalâs defense that the original recording featured short cuts, multiple takes and quick pacing, too â it was an impromptu jam, after all.
My want for full songs may be why I thoroughly enjoyed the encore, and itâs no frills, all-music attack on a classic song for each member of the quartet: âHound Dogâ for Presley, âGhost Ridersâ for Johnny Cash, âSee You Later Alligatorâ for Perkins and âWhole Lotta Shakinâ Goinâ Onâ for Jerry Lee Lewis.
The memories and reasons for those four being in the same studio together may fade away â read the convoluted Wikipedia entry, for instance â 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.