He was (1) in a Kmart calendar, with every month displaying a different photo of he and Priscilla on their wedding day. (2) Meeting Richard Nixon and being issued a federal narcotics badge. And (3), most consistently, and most important to this post, not Elvis.
Biopics always make me nervous; a quasi-biopic on Broadway makes me doubly nervous. The Million Dollar Quartet, brought to us by Broadway Across America, opened in Portland Tuesday night. The show hinges on the famous, serendipitous 1956 recording session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, recorded by producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records (in Memphis, Tennessee).
The title says as much. The Million Dollar Quartet is not a documentary-style recount of the 1956 jam session. What it is is an excuse to cash in on one-and-a-half hours of celebrated Baby-Boomer friendly songs—a plot-less, Tony-nominated, brisk Blockbuster, although performed by four admittedly talented actors/musicians.
The four characters are legends, which means they get reduced to types, that break down something like this:
Elvis Presley: hips. And billow-y white trousers that come with a vampy girlfriend. Elvis's (Cody Slaughter) voice is really good. (BTW Presley would've been 21 at the time of the recording.)
Jerry Lee Lewis: a clown from the backwoods—because, hey, he married a 13-year-old/his cousin, after all. With suspenders, a loose necktie, and hair that’s a curly version of the Flock of Seagull's haircut. To be more contemporary about the characterization, think Andy Dick plus my ex-boyfriend (which doesn’t mean anything to you, so I guess just trust me on that one).
Johnny Cash: Stiff, kind of short, bow-legged, all black clothes, coiffed hair, and furrowed eyebrows.
Carl Perkins: most notable are his weird shoulder twitches, which are supposed to give the impression that he’s so cool and nonchalant that he can’t stop shrugging? But really they suggest more the involuntary tweaks of a crackhead, who happens to be wearing his blue suede shoes which p.s. do not get stepped on.
And, Sam Phillips: a shrewd dude, a greasy car salesman-type who wears a tweed suit and probably bowls on the weekends. When he gets excited, he does a slippery slide-y lizard-like foot dance; I’m not sure where that comes from.
So the four of them rock through their blues-infused sets, dropping anachronisms in the form of inside jokes (Sam Philips says to Johnny Cash: Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in ages? Cash says: “I’ve been everywhere, man.”) There’s a little bit of drama, about whether Johnny Cash is going to sign with Columbia Records, and the fact that Elvis has already signed with RCA, hence abandoning Sun Records and Sam Phillips—who gets real pouty real quick—as he is the man responsible for discovering all four of the musicians in the first place. (Beyond that, there’s not much plot. Just nice instruments, beautiful harmonies, and lots of pomade.)
Lewis eventually appeases Phillips; he says he'll stick around Sun Records, blowing everyone away with a new diddy of his called "Great Balls of Fire." The crew is happy again! They all leave the stage; four sequined suit coats drop from the ceiling on hangers, and the four stars have returned to put on their glitzy jackets.
They rock out again, all together this time, in front of a grid of flashing flood lights; the audience stands up; everyone’s clapping to the music, at really irregular intervals of course, then the floodlights flash like 1-2-3, and the auditorium goes black, and the whole thing is over, and we are all left having a good time, in a jolty, sugar-rush kind of way.
Tonight and tomorrow are the last nights to see the show at the Keller Auditorium. Tickets can be found here.
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!