Jan. 4 2012 12:00 AM

Cash, Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis rock once more as the 'Million Dollar Quartet'


The story is a simple one. On Dec. 4, 1956, Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, had Carl Perkins and his band sitting down to record a session with a then-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano. Elvis Presley, a former musician for Sun who, by now, had become incredibly famous, dropped in for a friendly chat with his old friends at the studio and joined in on the session. Later, Johnny Cash, another Sun musician, arrived on the scene.

“Million Dollar Quartet,” opening Tuesday at the Wharton Center, captures the essence of that afternoon, and how sheer chance created one of the most famous rock n’ roll recordings of the era.

Derek Keeling, who plays Cash, says he doesn’t want his portrayal to seem like the kind of cheap impersonation he’s seen elsewhere.

“We want to capture the essence of what these guys did,” Keeling said, in a phone interview. Cash, in particular, “has a very distinct style in the way he plays the guitar, and in the way he walks, and talks, and he has a certain way about himself that’s cool, calm and collected.” 

Keeling, 30, was one of the contestants on NBC´s reality show “Grease: You´re the One That I Want” in 2007, which was designed to select stars for a Broadway revival of  “Grease.” Although he finished third in the contest, he still got a chance to play the role of Danny Zuko in the revival during the summer of 2008,

After being cast as The Man In Black, Keeling prepared for the role by watching hours of Cash performance footage that had been made available over the years.

“When you’re playing someone who actually existed, you have more resources,” he said.

Keeling says he had an advantage in that he had a similar upbringing to Cash, having grown up in a small West Virginia community that emphasized closeness to God and commitment to family.

“A lot of the things that drove him into writing the music that he wrote was God and family,” Keeling said, “and that’s always been important to me.”

Keeling and the other actors play their own instruments and sing the songs without getting bogged down by much of a plot. In this sense, “Million Dollar Quartet” is less of a musical and more of a concert.

Keeling says as much, too, cautioning that people who want denser musical theater may be surprised by how simple the show seems.

“We don’t necessarily have the songs built into the show to where they’re pushing the plot forward,” he said. “The songs are the songs. It’s a really realistic take on it all, because that’s what these guys are doing: having a jam session.”  

“The jukebox musical’s story might be thinner than the 1956 model Elvis,” wrote Miami Herald critic Howard Cohen in a review last month, “but for pure entertainment ´Million Dollar Quartet´ is worth a million bucks.”

In addition to Keeling, the cast features Martin Kaye as Lewis, Cody Slaughter as Presley and Lee Ferris as Perkins; Christopher Ryan Grant plays Phillips.

“Keeling has by far the richest, most resonant voice and his booming Cash, on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s hit ´Sixteen Tons´ and Stan Jones’ ´(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,´ is top-shelf,” Cohen noted.

‘Million Dollar Quartet’

Wharton Center

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 10, Wednesday, Jan. 11 and Thursday, Jan. 12; 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14; 1:30 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15