TAMPA — Million Dollar Quartet is a terrific concert. You can't go wrong with hard rocking classics like Blue Suede Shoes, That's All Right and Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. And the musician-actors portraying the stars gathered at Sam Phillips' Sun Records for a legendary jam session on Dec. 4, 1956 — Lee Ferris (playing Carl Perkins), Derek Keeling (Johnny Cash), Martin Kaye (Jerry Lee Lewis) and Billy Woodward (Elvis Presley) — are pretty darn believable. As a preshow announcement says, "There ain't no faking, these boys can really play."
But musical theater also requires a book, and authors Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and director Eric Schaeffer didn't come up with much of a story to tie together the 23 songs in the production, which opened Tuesday at the Straz Center. What little drama that exists among the iconic foursome and Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant) is basically a fait accompli, with Presley having left Sun, a small, pioneering label in Memphis, for RCA and Hollywood and The Ed Sullivan Show, and Cash and Perkins headed for another major label, Columbia Records. It's hard to work up sympathy for Phillips, who, after all, still had Lewis and, later, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich, to churn out hits for Sun in the early years of rock 'n' roll.
And hits are what you get in Million Dollar Quartet, as its creators took plenty of dramatic license to include mostly familiar music for the session, which, in reality, was much heavier on gospel, bluegrass and country songs. In a dubious invention, Elvis' girlfriend, who was at the session with him, has been transformed from a dancer into a sultry torch singer named Dyanne (Kelly Lamont), who stops the show with Fever and I Hear You Knocking.
One theme is the spiritual roots of rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues, mainly in the person of Lewis, torn between his Bible-thumping background and rock's sinful triumvirate of temptation, fornication and damnation. Kaye, in high-waisted red pants, is lots of fun as he pounds out Great Balls of Fire. Phillips was another fallen preacher man who lost his soul to rock 'n' roll, and Grant plays up the record producer's divided self, one moment swigging whiskey in the control room, the next urging Elvis "to sing to me the way you would sing to Jesus." Some of the prettiest singing in the show are the four-part harmonies of spirituals like Peace in the Valley.
Keeling's Cash is the most imitative performance, effectively capturing the man in black's deep voice and trademark guitar moves in such numbers as Folsom Prison Blues. Woodward has the toughest task, having to compete with a million Elvis impersonators, and he wisely keeps the swivel-hipped shtick to a minimum, except for a Vegas scarf homage. Ferris plays Perkins as a resentful hillbilly, and his guitar slinging in Brown Eyed Handsome Man (a Chuck Berry song) is electrifying. Perkins' Matchbox is also a treat, perhaps because it is not hugely familiar (though fans will remember that the Beatles covered it).
Chuck Zayas (as bass player Jay Perkins) and Billy Shaffer (drummer Fluke Holland) do a deft job as the session's side men. Costumes (Jane Greenwood) from the '50s and lighting (Howell Binkley) are stylishly rendered, and Derek McLane's scenic design richly evokes the makeshift quality of Sun's one-room studio in what had been an auto parts store. In the predictable finale, four shiny jackets descend from the flies and the studio falls away for a showcase by the quartet, each performing one more hit song apiece to wrap things up.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.