Stage Review: 'Quartet' still a killer musical with plenty of jiggle and shine

Arkansas' own Cody Slaughter nails Elvis Presley's moves in 'The Million Dollar Quartet' now playing at the Orpheum through March 30.

Photo by Jeremy Daniels

Arkansas' own Cody Slaughter nails Elvis Presley's moves in "The Million Dollar Quartet" now playing at the Orpheum through March 30.

The return of “Million Dollar Quartet” to the Orpheum brings some changes in the cast from last year, but the net effect remains the same.

The traveling production is still a showcase of hits and hymns that defined the 1950s and powered the still-new phenomenon of rock and roll into an energetic popular culture.

The story — is it possible you don’t know it? — is of the one and only time four luminaries of the day were together at the same time in Sam Phillips’ little Sun Studio in Memphis. It was the night of Dec. 4, 1956, and Phillips had arranged for Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis to be in the studio where the music was rocking and the tape was rolling.

The musical is mostly about the music, but it does have a narrative that propels things between tunes. It was a time when Elvis had already gone to RCA and Johnny and Carl were about to bolt from Sam. They all acknowledged Phillips’ genius at finding talent, but they needed big record labels to soar.

The genius of “Million Dollar Quartet” is that of balance — the storyline rarely gets in the way of the exuberance of the music, with songs aplenty. Each of the accomplished performers gets plenty of time to show off (and preen and jiggle and shine).

Arkansan Cody Slaughter — who also played Elvis in last year’s production — is a gifted performer with a decent voice who nails all of Elvis’ moves and expressions. He has a fan club that was well represented at Tuesday night’s opening performance, and it was clear that no matter how old you are or where you are, if you gotta get up and dance, then you gotta get up and dance.

The other actors/musicians delivered the goods as well. Ben Goddard’s Jerry Lee was all sass, manic energy and exploding talent. James Barry handled Carl Perkins with a bittersweet determination, and David Elkins’ Johnny Cash was low-key cool even as that bass voice shook the foundations. (“Come on down, Johnny!” his fans hollered).

No less a contribution came from the extraordinary backups with virtually no lines, but nonstop support: Corey Kaiser, as bassist Jay Perkins, and drummer Billy Shaffer, returning as Fluke. Both smooth as silk.

Vince Nappo’s Phillips was the narrator as well as instigator of the successful careers of the foursome. Nappo’s take was a smart blend of smooth savvy, will and devotion.

Filling out the cast was Kelly Lamont as Dyanne, a fictional character who plays a singer/girlfriend of Elvis. Lamont brings a complete and utter va-va-voom to the stage, not only in presence but with a voice of gold. Her version of “Fever” is breathtaking.

The Orpheum has a no-lose bet going here by bringing back the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. The music starts strong and gets stronger throughout the one-act experience. It’s a great time to get your boogie-woogie back on.

‘Million Dollar Quartet’

Through Saturday at the Orpheum, 203 S. Main. Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $20-$90. For more information: 901-525-3000; orpheum-memphis.com.

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