‘Million Dollar Quartet’ harmonizes in KC

When the Broadway hit, “Million Dollar Quartet,” came on tour to the Kauffman Center on Tuesday, the legendary night of Dec. 4, 1956 — when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash jammed in a one-time-only recording session at Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn. — came alive once more.

The musical follows the journey of Sam Phillips, the producer who “discovered” these icons, as he decides whether to sell out for a job at RCA or to keep his two-man operation afloat. Although the show started 27 minutes late, the actors recreating some of rock’s biggest hits worked all the harder to win the audience over.

The performance took on new life because of Austin Cook, an understudy in the role of Jerry Lee Lewis, who calls Kansas City his home. Cook was by turns hilarious and incendiary as a wide-eyed, knee-bouncing, extravagant braggadocio from Louisiana.

He pounded the ivories with the sole of his right shoe, stared cross-eyed into the microphone, and managed a tongue-in-cheek expression that made it continually look like he was about to spit. Despite the exaggeratedly curly blond wig, Cook didn’t allow Lewis to become a caricature, but instead provided incisive and irreverent humor as the slack-jawed upstart.

Lewis’s comments about the fallen status of musicians as “sinners” provided genuine pathos, and were nicely undercut by lines like, “I’ll rock ‘em and I’ll roll ‘em the whole night long” and “Mr. Phillips, I don’t know nothin’ except being good.” Cook did justice to the rough rockabilly spirit.

The plot follows Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant), one of the “fathers of rock ‘n’ roll,” who addresses the audience continually, flashing back to his initial encounters with each of the quartet members. Phillips was torn between developing new talent like Lewis, making new hits for proven artists like Perkins, and leaving his studio to work with the wildly successful Elvis once more at RCA. Phillips’ sense of betrayal at the departure of Cash and Perkins for the Columbia label felt genuine thanks to the vulnerability of Grant’s performance.

“This is where the soul of a man never dies,” Philips said of Sun Records.

When Phillips asked Elvis to bare his soul to him through his music (“I want to hear you sing to me the way you’d sing to Jesus”), the request felt ironic when one considers that Cash cited his inability to do a gospel album as a reason for leaving Sun Records. When Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA for $40,000, his peers later dubbed him “the king of fools.”

“Anyone looking for a fair to middling guitar picker?” Elvis (Cody Slaughter) asked as he entered the set, a corner of a room that looked more like a polished version of a studio (with padded red leather on the walls and a tin ceiling) than a revamped auto parts store. Slaughter managed the iconic singer’s lip curl, his musical intonation and gyrating hips without betraying his technique: it was easy to watch him inhabit the role.

Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris), dressed in blue, stormed off when the discussion turned to Elvis’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, when Elvis sang “Blue Suede Shoes,” a song Carl Perkins wrote. Later in the show Perkins lamented that he had “DJs telling me I’m covering Elvis, and it’s the other way around.”

Ferris’s “plowhand”-turned-musician was believable and understated, displaying surprising intensity in the song “My Babe.”

Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling) seemed pleasantly disgruntled at the ineptitude of Sun Records’ distribution system: “If they want to stop the spread of communism, they ought to let Sun distribute it.” Keeling’s Cash smiled incessantly, one might say too much, and felt a bit out of touch with the persona of the man in black, whose disposition was less than sunny.

While the storyline was enjoyable, the audience came for the music, and it was incredible that these actors were playing with such virtuosic skill: “I Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog,” and especially “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” were performances worthy of the Ed Sullivan Show. When the story ended, the crowd gave a standing ovation and stayed standing for the last four songs.

This was one rock ‘n’ roll musical that satisfied.