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Review: "Million Dollar Quartet" at the Palace Theatre

October 14, 2011 - Andy Gray
At the beginning of “Million Dollar Quartet,’’ there’s an announcement that says, “There ain’t no fakin’. These boys are really playin’.”

Along with a rhythm section, four men (with a little help from a woman) raise a musical ruckus on stage, and what a foursome it is.

The musical conceived by Floyd Mutrux is inspired by an actual event, when past and present Sun Records stars Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis all ended up in the legendary Memphis studio on Dec. 4, 1956.

After a 14-month run on Broadway, the show is launching its national tour in Cleveland with a two-week run at the Palace Theatre.

As written by Mutrux and Colin Escott, there was as much maneuvering as music going on that day.

Presley, feeling creatively stifled at RCA after Sam Phillips sold his contract to the major label to keep Sun shining, is trying to persuade Phillips to follow him to New York City and RCA. Phillips is torn about leaving Memphis and seems more concerned with getting Cash to renew his contract, something the singer clearly is reluctant to do.

Lewis, Phillips’ latest discovery, wants to prove to everyone that he’s their musical equal, while Perkins is carrying a chip on his shoulder as he’s watched other Sun artists eclipse his initial success with “Blue Suede Shoes.”

Those mini-dramas give the show a thread of a story, but “Quartet” is the quintessential jukebox musical, a show build around such beloved early rock favorites as “That’s All Right,” “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Sixteen Tons” and an “encore” finale with “Hound Dog,” “Riders in the Sky,” “See You Later Alligator” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

And along with all the rock, one of the show’s musical highlights is the four stars harmonizing on the gospel standard “Down by the Riverside.”

The four actors capture the spirit of the performers they play.

Martin Kaye doesn’t necessarily look like Lewis, but he has his rooster strut and cocksure attitude down pat, and he’s a madman on the piano.

Lewis tells Perkins early on, “88 keys got six strings beat every time,” although Lee Ferris brings a full-bodied rumbling guitar sound to his portrayal of Perkins and makes the bitter singer an imposing presence. And Derek Keeling nails Cash’s baritone.

Cody Slaughter has the most difficult task as Presley in that he’s the character the audience has the strongest mental image of from that era. He’s the one actor that the production go to extremes to recreate that image -- he’s wearing a layer of makeup so thick, up close his face resembles a porcelain mask – but at times the resemblance is uncanny.

And playing Presley’s girlfriend, Dyanne, Kelly Lamont shows off a seductive voice on “Fever.” Christopher Ryan Grant serves as the narrator and the driving dramatic force as Phillips. He’s a complex character, and Grant captures that complexity. Some of these artists might never have had careers without Phillips shaping their sound. But like most label heads in the ‘50s, he signed his artists to deals that paid them only a fraction of what they were worth. And his fledgling Memphis operation couldn’t provide the support to artists that the majors could.

At one point, Cash says, “If they want to stop the spread of Communism, they should let Sun distribute it.”

At times the cornpone humor gets spread a bit thick, but director Eric Schaeffer never lets it overwhelm the music, which is captured in all its raw, raucous glory in Chuck Mead’s arrangements.

If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum brought in more out-of-towners, “Million Dollar Quartet” is the kind of the show that would be great in a scaled-down version as a permanent occupant in the old Hanna Theatre or another downtown venue. It would be the perfect show for tourists looking for something to do after a day at the museum.

Instead, we’ll have to settle for a two-week run of a show that packs a lot of great rock ‘n’ roll music in a compact package.

“Million Dollar Quartet” runs through Oct. 23 at the Palace Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1519 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through the Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $10 to $75.


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