The evening of Dec. 4, 1956 was something of a watershed in the history of popular music. On that night, four of the biggest talents in early rock 'n' roll — Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis — came together at the Sun Records studio in Memphis for an impromptu recording session with their innovative producer Sam Phillips.
Million Dollar Quartet, the musical by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux playing at the Lexington Opera House through Sunday, details the interplay of these personalities on the eve of rock 'n' roll's transition from a grass-roots phenomenon to the mainstream, commercial force it has been ever since.
The energy for this excellent touring production comes mainly from the four talented performers playing the famous men. As Perkins, the writer of Blue Suede Shoes struggling to come up with another hit song, James Barry captures the character's existential angst while serving up delicious lead guitar licks and strong vocals. The slow burn of his shame and anger over Presley's appropriating his hit on The Ed Sullivan Show is palpable, and his sarcastic sparring with Lewis provides much of the show's humor.
John Countryman plays Lewis with rollicking ego and raging testosterone, and ignites the stage with his charisma. Of the four legendary figures, Countryman looks the least like his actual character — but sounds the most like him. His singing is eerily reminiscent of Lewis' guttural wailings, and his shredding of the piano is the real deal. What a fabulous performance.
Tyler Hunter makes a suave homeboy out of Presley, irresistibly likeable and fairly unspoiled for all his success, and he certainly has the hips for the role. His guitar-playing is great, and his crooning captures the King's style, if not his remarkable beauty of tone. His randy ways with the girlfriend he brings along, Dyanne (played with "good-time girl" sexiness by Kelly Lamont), provides a fun counterpoint to the more blatant, uncouth horniness evinced by Countryman.
The carnality of Presley and Lewis contrast in turn with the blend of church boy and businessman with which Scott Moreau portrays Cash. Somewhat handsomer than the actual Cash, Moreau displays superb guitar chops, although his serviceable bass voice does not have the richness or amplitude of the star he plays. The sincerity and straightforwardness of his performance is winsome and grounds the other three, more volatile personalities.
As independent record producer and early rock visionary Phillips, Vince Nappo cuts a proletarian figure, equal parts "fair play" ethos and "can-do" mentality. His raspy speaking voice is sometimes hard to understand, but his many moments observing and fiddling around in the control booth at the rear of the stage add a prosaic centeredness to the surreal spectacle of the four stars' interaction.
For all the entertainment value these characters bring to the story, the two onstage musicians actually steal the show. Patrick Morrow portrays Fluke the drummer with nerdy stolidity, never uttering a word or missing a beat. As bass player Jay Perkins, Corey Kaiser exudes pure joy of performance, dancing with his instrument throughout the evening, at times throwing it up into the air and doing other awesome, gimmicky tricks with it. He even humps it on the floor center stage during the extended curtain call in which the four leads offer one last hit each by the four legendary personages whom this show celebrates.
The evocative set by Derek McLane and sensitive lighting by Howell Binkley serve the production elegantly.
This is another Broadway Live offering not to be missed.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.