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Geeky rock critics everywhere rage over Greil Marcus' well-known book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music.
In every passionate page, Marcus takes the Elvis naysayers down. He argues that even if the young man born in Tupelo, Miss., never wrote one single song of his own, he nevertheless invented rock 'n' roll as we know it the night Sun Records label boss Sam Phillips coached him through a new way of singing "That's All Right." The naysayers sneered back, giving Arthur Crudup, the man who actually wrote the song, due credit.
"Million Dollar Quartet," which opened Tuesday night at Capitol Theatre, isn't interested at all in such arguments. But recreating the fabled night on Dec. 4, 1956, when Phillips managed to corral Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and that other young, bucking palomino Jerry Lee Lewis, into his Memphis recording studio, this is a musical interested in myriad other questions. It also gives due credit to Perkins for having written "Blue Suede Shoes."
"I'm tired of people accusing me of covering Elvis!" Perkins, played by Lee Ferris, tells Phillips in a huff. This line, and many others written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, who conceptualized the show, comes soon after revelations rattle the soul of Phillips, played by Christopher Ryan Grant.
There's showmanship in abundance throughout "Million Dollar Quartet," as the audience sizes up Ferris, Derek Keeling, Martin Kaye and Cody Slaughter to judge how well each recreates the soul and aura of Perkins, Cash, Lewis and the King himself. Each acquit themselves quite well of their impossible tasks, and then some. Slaughter in particular, arguably charged with the toughest commission of all, comes dangerously close to making you feel as if you're witnessing Elvis himself, with his puppy-dog face, long eyelashes and loose lower-lip just on the knife's edge of turning werewolf.
From "Blue Suede Shoes" to "Wild Child" and all the way through to "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," it's all sensational fun. It's all played live by each performer, too, with the rhythm section of Chuck Zayas on bass and Billy Shaffer on drums, two musicians who can turn from feather-touch to sheer thunder on a dime.
Fantastic as it all is, however, Phillips is the pent-up sun at the center of the universe, burning silently behind the scenes in hopes that he can keep all four of his historic charges loyal to his struggling label. Grant plays the role wonderfully, beaming in modest pride whenever his boys burst into song, furrowing his brow in frustration when they break his heart.
"Million Dollar Quartet" purports to recreate that special something we know as "the first and only time" these four legends shared a studio. The show also shows us a man so fortunate enough to have helped create a force so large and what else in American culture has been as large as rock music? he can no longer control it.
"You're all my farm boys," he tells them. "I've never heard a rich man make a record worth a damn."
Perhaps the only elements holding the show back are two musical numbers by Dyanne, played by Kelly Lamont. As Elvis' girlfriend, she's a fine singer, but feels like an add-on. Likewise, the show's performance coda, while thrilling, drains pathos from Phillips' story of artistic integrity standing against the lure of corporate money. It's all great stuff, but turns the show into too much of a fan vehicle. Then again, who's to say that's not rock 'n' roll?
'Million Dollar Quartet'
Bottom line • A raucous, vintage jam-session stuffed with '50s-era rock that shakes the rafters, even as it broods in the corner over artistic integrity. Two hours with no intermission.
When • Reviewed May 29. Plays through June 3. Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 6:30 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City