Touring ‘Quartet’ in perfect harmony

Whew! I just saw “Million Dollar Quartet,” and I’m ready to head back.

I didn’t expect the touring production, now at The Smith Center, to be such an electrifying evening of theater. For one thing, the storyline sounded too confining: four now-famed musicians (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) re-create a historical jam session from 1956. Secondly, what were the chances that a touring production would come up with performers who could even suggest the magic of the legends?

Good news on both counts.

Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s book (based on a true story) uses the slim plot to touch on a surprising number of themes. And the union cast is not just superb, but often memorable.

Our heroes find themselves in Memphis’ Sun Records Studio, having been brought together by guru Sam Phillips. The session is rife with unchecked egos and insecurities. Much more moving, though, is how the spirit of talent unites these four personalities. When a brilliant song comes out of nowhere, the players often put aside their differences in the pleasure of artistry.

The cast members all do their own singing and instrumentals, and it’s amazing how on-target they are.

Under the expert direction of Eric Schaeffer, they achieve souls, rather than mere impersonation. Derek Keeling brings to his Cash a gravel-voiced authority and emotional maturity. Lee Ferris’ down-home Perkins demonstrates pipes that bring to mind not just the singer’s voice, but his humble roots and big-star temperament. With all the Elvis impersonators in the world, it’s to Cody Slaughter’s great credit that he puts his own stamp on the role. It’s a three-dimensional performance, and when was the last time you saw a three-dimensional Elvis?

The script gives Lewis the star slot, and the boyish Martin Kaye is up to the challenge. Sure, he’s an exciting musician (you understand why anyone listening to him for five seconds would know immediately this is a young man on the rise), but what takes you aback is how well he demonstrates the character’s joy at being alive. He can’t sit still because he’s too eager to make music, become famous and meet wild women. Kaye’s so likably arrogant, you forgive him his character’s sins.

The show is grounded by Christopher Ryan Grant as the label wonder Phillips. Grant comes across as the kind of father figure who loves “kids’ music,” the record business and the needy up-and-coming.

Technical values are always excellent. You never tire of looking at this one-set show.

And finally: those rude audience members who climb all over you during curtain calls so they can get to their cars before you do are getting their justice here. By leaving before the actors get their due applause, they are missing out on a monumental encore. Those final four numbers give the two-hour production not only a final seal of deserved goodwill, but a musical punch that will probably stay with you forever.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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