Friday, February 17, 2012

"Million Dollar Quartet" is a Valentine to Memphis

Posted by on Fri, Feb 17, 2012 at 9:21 AM

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Christopher Ryan Grant sure said it.

The Orpheum was packed. And as Million Dollar Quartet shifted into high gear, abandoning narrative for its closing concert format, Grant, the actor playing Sun Studio founder and Rock-and-Roll midwife Sam Phillips, turned to the subdued but Sun-savvy audience and ad libbed: "It's good to be in Memphis." It was February 14, and, judging by the Crowd's ovation, this was a real love affair.

M$Q is a fictionalized account of the one and only occasion when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash were all at Sun Studio together. The conceit: Elvis has gone to RCA. Cash and Perkins have both got deals with Columbia but haven't told Sam Phillips yet. And Phillips has a secret too. He's been offered a chance to move to New York and join Elvis at RCA. But as he watches his most famous artists leave for greener pastures he becomes more convinced that he belongs in Memphis and swears he'd rather sell a hundred records made his way that a million with somebody else pulling the strings. It's a resonant moment for people who live in a place where artists and businessmen have so famously gone their own way, for better and for worse. As the real Sam Phillips once told the Flyer's Jackson Baker, "We flat-ass changed the world." And Memphis did. Repeatedly. For a while.

"This is where the soul of a man never dies," the fictionalized Phillips says, surveying a fair approximation of 706 Union Avenue.

I saw both Million Dollar Quartet and Memphis the musical on Broadway only days after the 2010 Tony Awards. Both productions were nominated for big prizes, but only the latter cleaned up. To be fair, Memphis is a more artfully crafted piece of musical theater. M$Q is little more than a good excuse to put bring some iconic early rock, gospel, and R&B songs to the Great White Way. But the big winner, with it's easy pop and power ballads exploits Memphis's legacy while the loser — the loser that's on stage at the Orpheum right now— pays ernest tribute. It's a bittersweet valentine to the city that put Rock-and-Roll on the map.

And here's a fun fact: The cast assembled for this tour make the cats I saw on Broadway look like chumps. This Johnny Cash—Derek Keeling— looks and sounds like the real deal. Cody Slaughter, who was named "The Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist" by Elvis Presley Enterprises, has the looks and the moves and acts at least as well as the guy he's playing. Martin Kaye's Jerry Lee Lewis is more of a bantam rooster than killer and Lee Ferris barely conjures the memory of Carl Perkins but both actors bring a lot of heart to the roles and some fine piano pounding and guitar shredding respectively.

When it comes to marrying the dramatic elements to music Jersey Boys is still a more perfect juke box biography. But with four hillbilly hellhounds on his trail Frankie Valli needs to watch his ass.

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