There was a time when southern white guys were learning to perform rhythm and blues, harking to black singers, soul singers, and down home back country guitarists. And out of those fundamental sources, those white guys began making names for themselves bringing forth music and words that sounded like the sources even if it was their own new stuff. And, lord a mighty, out of those roots, rock and roll was born, surging forth, stirring crowds, bringing many of those newcomers fame and fortune.
In the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, some of them, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, surge forth again, not as wax replicas in a museum, not as plastic, deliberate impersonations, but as soulful, gutsy, down-home, full-blown talents, romping through 23 great songs that they made famous or that made them famous themselves. They do so in a version of that show that has hit the road and planted its feet for just a few days here at The Benedum. That trip is worth the trip.
Rock and roll history is full of milestones. In 1956 the roots had firmly planted, even if some people in the music business never thought that that new thing would survive or wanted to trim it or turn it into topiary. And, in 1956, those four stars, almost by accident, collectively moseyed on in to the small Memphis recording studio that gave birth to their careers. Sun Records. The one-time gathering was real. It became history.
That event has been re-imagined and evoked by writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux in Million Dollar Quartet. It’s fundamentally a showcase for a mighty fine bunch of songs although Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, personified by Christopher Ryan Grant, narrates background while telling his own part of the story. Most of the dialogue sounds fundamental, the acting of it sounding capable enough. But note: unlike so many other shows of the day, this one has no profanity, no nudity. You might think these rock stars were as innocent as the days they were born.
Those good old songs catchily, compellingly grab you, hold you, warm you, thanks to the talents on stage. Listen to Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins play the heck of that guitar. Watch Martin Kaye as sassy upcomer Jerry Lee Lewis delightfully pound and sound every note from every angle of the piano while his stomping feet nearly put holes into the floor. Hear Derek Keeling resonantly probe the down-to-earth lower notes as Johnny Cash. Watch Cody Slaughter make young Elvis a sincere, gentle soul who just happens to have knees that can’t help rocking and legs that can’t help stomping. And Chuck Zayas’ bass sturdily underpins the propulsion.
Great balls of fire, there’s a whole lot of great shaking going on.
Million Dollar Quartet is at Benedum Center through 6:30 pm Sunday November 6th. In the PNC Broadway Across America-Pittsburgh series : (412) 456-6666 or pgharts.org