DURHAM – Oh, to be in the room with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins at Sun Records. It only happened once, captured visually in a newspaper photograph noting their million-dollar jam session. The Broadway tour of the musical “Million Dollar Quartet” is on stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center through Sunday. It gives audiences a chance to feel what it must have been like to be there among the talent that was playing a new sound and gathering so much popular steam.
Jerry Lee Lewis, the only one of the quartet still living, is portrayed by Martin Kaye with aplomb. Kaye’s piano playing skills do justice to Lewis’ music and show us what a wild ride Lewis takes you on, with quite a bit of humor. Not impersonators, the performers in “Million Dollar Quartet” capture the feeling of being around these legends of rock and roll music, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Vince Nappo) included. But their vocal and instrumental skills are top notch and one gets the feeling the men they portray might be pleased by the successful 6-year-old musical.
Though billed as “inspired” by the real life meeting of musical stars, both rising and established, on Dec. 4, 1956, in Memphis, “Million Dollar Quartet” is also a bit of a history lesson. Where would rock music be without Sam Phillips and Sun Records? Without Elvis? Without the Southern men who were ushered to fame after being given a chance in a Tennessee recording studio?
David Elkins, who portrays Johnny Cash, garnered immediate enthusiastic applause opening night when the first note of his deep voice reached the ears of the eager audience. It showed what good musical theater can do, bringing music performed live, and done well, to those who missed it the first go-round.
The plot of the musical centers around the reunion of Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons), Presley (Cody Slaughter) and Cash, who meet and humorously conflict with Phillips’ new acquisition, Louisiana piano player Lewis. Cory Kaiser on upright bass portrays Jay Perkins, and Billy Shaffer is drummer Fluke. Kelly Lamont is Elvis’ lady friend Dyanne. The cast are all skillful, impressive musicians, and Nappo is convincing as the head of Sun Records and the man who brought out the best in these rock ‘n’ roll legends.
It was indeed, as quoted in the show, a “hillbilly homecoming” that shows the men as real people, not just legends, and the genius they contained even early in their careers.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is indeed a rollicking good time. Go see and enjoy it.
WHAT: “Million Dollar Quartet”
WHEN: Through Sunday, Dec. 9
WHERE: Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St., Durham