The "supergroup" is nothing new. From Cream to Temple of the Dog to Audioslave, we've seen big names from rock join forces -- either to make some bad-ass music, or to fail miserably trying. (Velvet Revolver, anyone?)
But December 4, 1956, at the renowned Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, saw the first ever supergroup come together -- albeit by pure chance -- when Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash popped in to catch a Carl Perkins recording session while up-and-coming piano rocker Jerry Lee Lewis sat in. Million Dollar Quartet, which opened last night at the Arsht, is the raucous musical that captures that fateful day and brings to life this iconic photograph.
The true-life events of the Million Dollar Quartet are found scattered through biographies, a scratchy recording, and word-of-mouth accounts, making it more apocryphal than actual history. But this dazzling musical does its best to bring the audience to that fateful afternoon of the winter of '56.
Told through the narration of record producer and Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant), Million Dollar Quartet is an amalgam of dazzling rocking performances and rock doc, putting together the pieces of what we know happened that day.
Phillips wants to make another hit with Perkins (Lee Ferris), and brings in his latest talent, Lewis (Martin Kaye), to sit in on the session. Meanwhile, RCA records is pressing Phillips to join them so he can once again work with Elvis, whom he discovered but RCA signed away. Phillips also has a three-year contract he wants his other star, Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling), to sign. And Elvis (Cody Slaughter), who is already a year into his mega-star career, stops by with then-girlfriend Dyanne (Kelly Lamont), to visit Phillips. With all four musicians in the studio, Phillips encourages an impromptu jam session, while he tells the audience the tale of how each of the four came to his little studio in Memphis with heads full of dreams and stardom.
The force behind what makes Million Dollar Quartet so much fun is, of course, the performances. It's wall-to-wall rock 'n' roll with the Phillips' narration as historical filler. The actors that made up the iconic foursome oozed gobs of talent. Each one blew away the audience with voice and movement. They didn't just mimic the foursome. And what's more impressive, they played their own instruments backed by a terrifically talented rhythm section (Billy Shaffer on drums, Chuck Zayas on bass). Wall-shaking hits like "Blue Suede Shoes," "That's All Right," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" and "Matchbox" got the audience clapping and stopping their feet, while quieter, but equally powerful hymns like "Peace In The Valley" showcased the performers' versatility.
Keeling as Johnny Cash was superb. Where he lacked in looking like Cash, he made up with a booming baritone that brought the house down with "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk The Line." Ferris dazzled as an often-frustrated Carl Perkins, and his phenomenal guitar solos were the highlight of each song.
Slaughter nailed it as the young, sexually energetic Elvis, with his swiveling hips, crooked smile and country boy humility. He's the last to enter the studio (with shades on and a girl in his arm), and you could feel the room's vibe change when the King enters. Slaughter's voice, like the others, is a dead-ringer for Presley's, particularly during the quieter spirituals.
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But the standout, performance-wise, was Kaye as the kinetic and cocky Jerry Lee Lewis. At first it seemed as if he was there to play the comic relief. But it soon became apparent that Lewis was going to shake the music world up with his energy, charisma, and talent. Kaye banged away on the piano and his uncanny dead-on performance as Lewis was a marvel to watch.
Million Dollar Quartet is at once a time capsule, a concert, and hip-shaking history lesson with Phillips as the mythmaker at its center. Most of us have never seen these four giants of rock perform live, and most of us have never heard about that day in December of 1956. But Million Dollar Quartet transports you there. It's a fantastic show that celebrates the birth of rock with myth, magic, and kick-ass tunes.
Million Dollar Quartet runs until January 1 at the Adrienne Arsht Center's Ziff Ballet Opera House (1300 Biscayne Blvd.) Tickets range from $25 to $72. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.