There was a little bit of rock 'n' roll history, a little bit of Las Vegas spectacle, and a whole lot of shakin' going on at the opening performance of Million Dollar Quartet at Overture Hall on Tuesday night. The touring cast performs the show in Madison through May 18.
The inspiration for Million Dollar Quartet, a musical devoted to four legends of early rock 'n' roll, is almost too good to be true. In early December, 1956, up-and-coming recording artists Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all happened to gather in Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
When the young musicians started playing and singing together, at least two people who recognized the jam session as a momentous event: the recording engineer who switched on the microphones and taped the entire afternoon, and Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Record Company, who called the local newspaper and asked the staff to send a photographer right away. The next day the Memphis Press-Scimitar documented the session in an article, and a photo of Presley seated at the piano surrounded by Lewis, Perkins and Cash was captioned "Million Dollar Quartet."
Using the original event, a jukebox full of rock 'n' roll classics, and four meticulously crafted impersonations, Million Dollar Quartet has played to enthusiastic and nostalgic audiences across the country, with extended runs in Chicago and on Broadway. Written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, the musical takes a few liberties with the premise, adding a bit of backstory and upping the stakes for each of the musicians. But much like other popular shows that exist to support a familiar music catalog (Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages, Forever Plaid, Mamma Mia), the plot is not important. The audience wants to relive a distinct moment in the history of popular music, performed as faithfully as possible.
In the case of Million Dollar Quartet, that's exactly what the crowd at Overture Center got.
Playing hard-bitten hustler Phillips, Vince Nappo narrated the evening, providing introductions for each of the crooners he discovered and reenacting their auditions for the small and struggling label. His patter about the music business filled in the spaces between songs as he urged "his boys" to sing.
But the show belongs to the musicians. As the overeager country bumpkin and rising star Jerry Lee Lewis, John Countryman shows off his considerable skill as a pianist. Pounding at the keyboard, kicking away his piano bench and even finishing signature songs like "Great Balls of Fire" with his foot on the keys, his curly hair bounces emphatically along with the "devil music" he performs.
Scott Moreau's Johnny Cash is astonishing, from his imposing physical presence and straight-armed guitar playing to his impossibly rich, deep voice. Moreau's renditions of "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line" and "Riders in the Sky" are haunting and resonant, matching the character of the enigmatic Man in Black.
And it comes as no surprise that when Tyler K. Hunter is not performing as Elvis Presley in Million Dollar Quartet, he is performing as Elvis Presley in other venues. Easily a contender for a look-alike contest, Hunter has mastered the King's every pelvis gyration, vocal inflection and onstage flourish. His performance is a clear reminder of Elvis' groundbreaking style and his ability to make crowds swoon.
As the lesser-known Carl Perkins, James Barry has fewer audience expectations to fulfill, but he impresses nonetheless with his playful stage presence. On virtually every song, his fingers flew up and down the neck of his electric guitar with ease.
The only odd chords of the night came from Dyanne, a stand-in for Elvis' girlfriend Marilyn Evans, who accompanied Presley to the actual jam session. Though the character is played by the gorgeous and musically gifted Kelly Lamont, her sultry rendition of "Fever" feels out of place musically. And in general, her character feels tacked onto the show.
In the encores, complete with a dramatic costume change into sequined jackets, the quartet gave audience members what they expected: an excuse to get out of their seats and dance. But the show as a whole also imparted a sense of melancholy. As Phillips muses at the end of the story, the four gifted musicians went on to great success and fame, but not great happiness. Seeing artists of such talent and potential in the same room, it is hard not to be nostalgic for the moment captured in the photograph.