Jan. 11 2012 12:00 AM

There’s good rockin' tonight: 'Million Dollar Quartet' rattles the Wharton Center rafters


True story: in early December 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis were all summoned to the Sun Records recording studio in Memphis by Sun founder Sam Phillips, the man who had “discovered” each of the artists. Someone had the good sense to hit “record,” and the music that materialized was dubbed “the Million Dollar Quartet” the next day in a local paper. 

“Million Dollar Quartet” gives a realistic storyline to what was basically just an impromptu jam session of epic proportions. Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrox’s book deftly tucks each of the towering icons into traditional archetypes, giving the audience fresh notions of familiar artists.

In this version, Presley is the personality, Perkins is the crank, Cash is the soul and Lewis is the id.

They play mix-and-match over nearly two dozen songs, and the audience does what it can to keep its collective head from exploding from this much awesomeness. 

Between songs, the four stars kibitz and quarrel. Derek Keeling’s quiet, contemplative turn as Cash gives him a soulfulness not often depicted; Billy Woodward’s Elvis is a polite, God-fearing Southern boy who’s always a playful swivel hip away from trying to seduce you; and Martin Kaye’s Jerry Lee — the audience favorite on opening night — is the one whose zaniness always manages to stay just-this-side of annoying.

Several spiritual songs and a couple standards are included so you can see the DNA of a musical revolution. 

The brilliance of “Million Dollar Quartet” is that it doesn’t have to meddle with any drawn-out backstories, crippling addictions or explosive scandals — just plenty of good music and flawless characterizations.

Then “Million Dollar Quartet” enters genius territory by daring to play the rock and roll supergroup version of “what if?” What if they four of them had taken their little jam session on the road?

Don’t leave your seat until Elvis has left the building, and you get to find out.  

‘Million Dollar Quartet’

Wharton Center

7:30 p.m. 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