The latest addition to the roster of tributes to Old Vegas headliners is nothing like a rerun.
The cast of “Million Dollar Quartet” is obviously super-talented, and I would have been satisfied to watch seven musicians jam for 90 minutes — no over-imitated dance moves necessary.
But the four guys who play Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis make the legends sing and dance with new life, and even a 20-something like me can fall in love with the voices that rocked the ’50s.
My knowledge of early rock history and hits is pretty much limited to some covers my dad plays on guitar when I come to visit. But last night at the Harrah’s Theatre, I felt like I had finished washing the dishes, reapplied my red lipstick and hit the town in my poodle skirt and pumps.
“Million Dollar Quartet” plays up the musicians’ roots because the tale of how each was discovered by Sun Records producer Sam Phillips (Marc Donovan) is key to making the audience care that Perkins and Cash plan to leave the man who made them and make for greener pastures at Columbia Records.
The characters’ back-roads beginnings and corresponding country drawls made them seem like people I could know, love and laugh at. The hometown hero personas that let the icons of the rock ‘n’ roll movement win the hearts of America’s youth in the early years were alive and kickin’ in “Million Dollar Quartet.”
For most of the show, Tyler Hunter was honest and understated as an Elvis at the start of his rise. (He gave the audience a little classic hips-driven impersonation in “Hound Dog” as the jam session reached its peak.)
Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons) was appropriately enigmatic. He laid claim to the show’s opener, “Blue Suede Shoes,” and contributed some tension to the plot by blaming Phillips for losing him popular credit for his first hit.
Martin Kaye’s Jerry Lee Lewis was easily the ‘biggest’ performance of the production. The quirky, loudmouthed youngster is a wiz on the piano, and he steals the show from the first number, twitching and twisting on the bench with an adolescent eagerness that matches the squeals and shouts of his trademark hit (and show’s closing solo number) “Great Balls of Fire.”
Every song was a thrill, but I could have spent the whole night listening to Benjamin D. Hale as Johnny Cash. Still and somber on stage, he had little dialogue with which to establish a persona. That might have been why his solo performances — stripped-down compared to the others’ — seemed the most organic.
The educated audience member would have to suspend his or her knowledge of the real rock history timeline in order to imagine the ensemble playing some later creations in the Sun Records session, but veterans and newbies alike will be dazzled.
In fact, I think that being an outsider to early rock put me in the best place to be taken in by “Million Dollar Quartet.” The performers are about my age. Like me, they’re just becoming professionals. Whether I think of them as real people or as characters, they are both relatable and charismatic.
The boys are cute. Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne (the only female actor in the show, played by Felice Garcia) wears great shoes. There’s enough real drums and bass to fill the void left by contemporary pop music.
It’s easy to see how the Greatest Generation could fall head over heels for rock ‘n’ roll. “Million Dollar Quartet” put even this Millenial in the mood for more.