It seems too good to be true: a recording session on Dec. 4, 1956, in which Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins played and sang together for the first and only time. The session, at Sun Records' storefront recording studio in Memphis, Tenn., was carefully planned by Sam Phillips, the "Father of Rock 'n' Roll," who discovered all four rock icons.
Now, that recording session is being immortalized in a jukebox musical, "Million Dollar Quartet," at the Kennedy Center. The show doesn't delve deeply into the lives of the singers -- just enough to show how each one relates to Phillips (Vince Nappo). The musical's real focus is some of America's most famous hits, including "I Walk the Line," "Hound Dog," "See You Later, Alligator," "Fever," "Sixteen Tons" and "Great Balls of Fire," to name a few.
Written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux with precise direction by Eric Schaeffer and sensational musical direction by Chuck Mead, the most important fact about the show is that its stars are excellent singers/musicians first and foremost. Everything is live.
The show begins with Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye), who fills Phillips' studio with his personality and talent, both of which are very large. Kaye is a fabulous musician and plays the piano with his whole body, much as Lewis did, his right leg pumping up and down.
|'Million Dollar Quartet'|
|Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW|
|When: Through Jan. 6|
|Info: $80 to $160; 202-467-4600; kennedy-center.org|
Phillips, with his eye for talent, can put up with Lewis, but when Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons) arrives, the atmosphere gets testy. Perkins sees no redeeming value in Lewis or his music. Perkins' "Matchbox" and "Who Do You Love?" are two of the best numbers of the evening.
When Johnny Cash (David Elkins) wanders in, it becomes apparent that no real plot is needed to introduce a song, so his friends urge Cash to sing "Folsom Prison Blues." Elkins' delivery is perfect: the left arm hyperextended, Cash-style; the voice a warm, buttery basso profundo.
By December 1956, Elvis (Cody Slaughter) had already left the Phillips fold and was a Hollywood star, but he returned at Phillips' invitation with his girlfriend, Dyanne (Kelly Lamont), and was reminded how Phillips urged him to find his unique voice.
Slaughter's voice is a bit higher than Elvis' was, but he's got all the right moves and does a lot of impressive dancing. (Billy Woodward plays Elvis through Jan. 5.)
The remaining musicians are the bass player (Corey Kaiser) and drummer (Billy Shaffer).
"Million Dollar Quartet" doesn't pretend to be a exact replica of the 1956 recording session, but it's a fascinating, entertaining look into the lives of four extraordinarily talented musicians and the man who helped shape them.