At the Fox Theater: 'Million Dollar Quartet' rocks

For the News-DemocratApril 25, 2013 

The momentous evening of Dec. 4, 1956, is given its due in a reverent, joyous jukebox musical that celebrates the roots of rock 'n' roll and the iconic figures who have shaped music for decades.

It's just a whole lotta fun -- an hour and 45 minutes without an intermission that immerses the audience in a bygone era while providing the feel-good aspect of those early records. If you don't get up on your feet during the greatest hits' finale, check your pulse.

In the tiny Sun Records Studio in Memphis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley gathered together for the first and only time. Their jam session, dubbed the "Million Dollar Quartet," is spotlighted in a stage show that is as vibrant and fresh today as the men who created the soundtrack to many fans' lives.

The late Perkins, Cash and Presley live on as the legends who carved their place in pop culture, and seeing them as younger versions is striking. Lewis, who is the sole survivor and 77 today, is shown as just starting out, with one record under his belt.

This glimpse into history has an undeniable allure, and the story provides enough conflict and drama to make it interesting theater. The four performers interpret the quartet well -- and they sure can play their instruments, displaying fierce musicality.

Perkins (James Barry) is bitter that a car accident prevented his appearance on "The Perry Como Show," and then Elvis sang his hit "Blue Suede Shoes" on "The Ed Sullivan Show," thus stealing the limelight. The brash Lewis (an electric Ben Goddard) is getting on his nerves with his beginner's bravado, as Perkins clamors for the spotlight he once had.

Presley (newcomer Cody Slaughter), with a girlfriend-singer Dyanne (sultry Kelly Lamont) on his arm, is enjoying newfound success and the start of a movie career. The early smoldering Elvis, as embodied by Slaughter, an Elvis impersonator contest winner, is a sight to behold.

Cash (James Elkins), as earnest and decent as everyone believes, has realized his dream with a breakout year. Whether it was "Folsom Prison Blues," "Walk the Line" or "Down By the River," he received the biggest crowd reactions of the night -- perhaps because of his crossover appeal with both country, gospel and rock music lovers.

Goddard, as Lewis, is the firecracker here, as he showcases the "Killer" signature piano moves, and works the crowd with a cocky charisma, especially with a smokin' "Great Balls of Fire." You can see why Levi Kreis, who played Lewis on Broadway, won the Tony Award for best supporting actor.

Narrating the story, and giving the evening its remarkable status, is record producer Sam Phillips, the acknowledged "Father of Rock 'n' Roll." Vince Nappo excels as the pioneer who faced tough decisions and heartbreak. He endured the growing pains of his tiny venture as fame pulled his stable onto the national stage.

Session musicians Fluke (Billy Shaffer) on drums and Jay Perkins (Cory Kaiser) on bass supply the right notes to make it a memorable evening. Indeed, there is a whole lotta shakin' going on at the Fox, now through May 5.

At a glance

What: "Million Dollar Quartet"

When: Tuesday through May 5. At 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 7:30 p.m. April 28; 2 p.m. May 2.

Where: The Fox Theatre, 531 Grand Blvd., St. Louis

Tickets: $15-$80; MetroTix.com, 314-534-1111 or Fox Theatre box office

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