Cash-money music

Million Dollar Quartet

Million Dollar Quartet
8 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Broadway Sacramento at the Sacramento Community Center Theater
1301 L Street
(916) 557-1999

Sacramento Community Center Theater

1301 L St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 808-5291

Rated 4.0

Million Dollar Quartet dazzled a sold-out opening-night audience at the Community Center Theater last Tuesday. Perhaps it even brought back memories to an older crowd who probably listened to the at-the-time rebellious music of rock legends Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. The production rocked as a history-based, theatrical concert experience, but fell just short of being a well-rounded history lesson.

Million Dollar Quartet is based on the true story of a happenstance jam session featuring Cash, Perkins, Presley and Lewis. It occurred December 4, 1956, at Sun Records’ studio in Memphis, Tenn. Recorded by pioneering rock ’n’ roll producer Sam Phillips, the session became an afterthought in the Sun Records catalog, until tapes from the mostly forgotten night surfaced and were released in 1981. Million Dollar Quartet, the musical theatre production based on the jam session, was first produced in Florida in 2006, before making a Tony-winning Broadway appearance in 2010, and a touring production began in 2011.

Another strong performance for California Musical Theatre’s Broadway Sacramento series, musicianship in this theatrical concert was top-notch. Thanks to great costumes, set designs and acting, it seemed as if 1956-era Perkins (Lee Ferris), Cash (Derek Keeling), Lewis (Martin Kaye) and Presley (Cody Slaughter) were really in the building.

Additional musicians playing in the jam session—singer Marilyn Evans (Kelly Lamont), bassist Jay Perkins (Chuck Zayas) and drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland (Billy Schaffer)—also impressed, displaying moments of musical virtuosity.

However, the performance seemed to suffer from burdensome dialogue early on that seemed a bit contrived. Scenes “froze” as Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant) narrated how he first came to meet Cash, Perkins, Presley and Lewis. While these scenes helped explain the context of the jam session and how rock ’n’ roll—or rather, roots rockabilly—first came to be recorded, the show didn’t pick up pace until about midway through the script, during a wholly made-up piece of drama at the studio.

Without giving away any details, the aforementioned piece of drama allows Phillips to finally reveal his true character as a music-loving “hero” who eventually capitalized on rock ’n’ roll and launched a billion-dollar industry.

Thankfully, the script mentions Phillips’ groundbreaking early career, in which he recorded African-American bluesmen and struggled getting those records heard by white audiences. However, Million Dollar Quartet is written as a triumphant story, one where white musical heroes bridge the social-racial gap by recording black music. Yes, it also mentions Perkins’ apprenticeship with a black blues player and the entire group’s love of Chuck Berry.

But, in the end, the script is a sad reminder that society continues to glorify white artists like Presley, Lewis and Perkins as rock ’n’ roll’s “kings,” without giving enough credit to the African American rhythm and blues artists they copied, including Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King—all of whom recorded with Phillips prior to 1956. Indeed, Phillips even considered Howlin’ Wolf his best discovery and Elvis his second-best.

Historical hair-splitting aside, the cast and crew in this rockin’ production do the best with what they have here—a great score celebrating Cash, Perkins, Presley and Lewis’ deep catalog—which includes originals and covers of rock, gospel and country tunes. It’s a must-see for any music fan.