Playing a musical legend comes with its own set of challenges, two of the performers in "Million Dollar Quartet" have discovered over the last year.
One has to capture the fire, energy and passion of Jerry Lee Lewis, and the other has to work to remind audiences why Carl Perkins was so great and deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
"Million Dollar Quartet" -- a show celebrating the four icons and their music -- arrives in Salt Lake City on Tuesday for nearly a weeklong run at the Capitol Theatre. The show was inspired by the famous Dec. 4, 1956, impromptu recording session at the Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tenn.
"The night itself wasn't influential over rock 'n' roll, but the fact that these four guys played together at one particular time is kind of a big deal," said Martin Kaye, who portrays Lewis.
The production dramatizes the legendary session and features an eclectic score of rock, gospel, R&B and country hits, including "Blue Suede Shoes," "Fever," "Sixteen Tons," "Who Do You Love?," "Great Balls of Fire," "Matchbox," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Hound Dog" and more chart-topping hits.
The show has been called a jukebox musical, but Kaye and Lee Ferris -- who plays Perkins -- said "Million Dollar Quartet" is so much more than that. Kaye describes the production as something between a concert and Broadway show. Ferris notes it has been described as a "live music documentary."
Both performers agreed it's a whole lot of fun as Kaye burns up the ivories and Ferris rocks out on the electric guitar.
"From a musical standpoint, what makes this show more unique than anything is that we play every note the audience hears from beginning to end," Ferris said. "There is no orchestra. There is no recorded music. Every night, we go out there and play it ... Musically speaking, it's a very dynamic show."
Joining Kaye and Ferris onstage as the other half of the quartet are Derek Keeling as Cash and Cody Slaughter as Presley. Christopher Ryan Grant plays Sam Phillips, the "Father of Rock 'n' Roll," who is credited with launching the careers of all four of the musicians.
The show is not heavily plot driven. Essentially, Phillips tells the audience the events of the evening and how he met each of the musicians. The plot may not be key, but that doesn't really matter when you have some of the greatest rock 'n' roll songs of all time.
Ferris particularly enjoys opening the show with "Blue Suede Shoes" -- the song Perkins wrote and first made famous. Kaye's favorite moment comes in the show's big closing number, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."
"People say it's all about the music, and it really, really is," Kaye said. "Essentially, what we are is a rock 'n' roll band touring the states and it's really fun."
Perkins earns credit
Each night when he steps onto the stage, Ferris said he has to work to remind audiences why Perkins is so important in the world of music.
"I have to earn that sort of respect from the audience every night that the other guys automatically get," he said.
Raised in the Los Angeles area, Ferris is a multitalented performer who describes himself as a "singer, guitar player, songwriter and actor -- in that order." He has written and recorded a number of songs and is half of the Los Angeles indie duo Freddy and Francine. No stranger to the world of musical theater, Ferris has also played the Phantom in "Phantom of the Opera" and Berger in "Hair."
Ferris said "Million Dollar Quartet" gives credit to a man whose musical legacy he greatly admires.
Perkins is famous for writing and recording the single "Blue Suede Shoes," which sold 1.2 million copies, an astronomical number by today's standards, Ferris said. However, Perkins' career was sidelined by a horrific car accident. Many other artists, including the Beatles, built upon the rockabilly sound Perkins helped create.
"Carl is more of a musician's musician," Ferris said, noting that Paul McCartney famously said, "If there were no Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles."
Elvis also recorded a version of "Blue Suede Shoes" and is often mistakenly credited for writing the song, Ferris said. What drama there is in "Million Dollar Quarter" touches on the tense dynamic between Elvis and Carl over that song, Lee said.
"There was no competing between the sex appeal of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins," Ferris said. "Elvis would win that battle every time."
Fire on the stage
Friction between Elvis and Carl is counterbalanced by Kaye, who has been winning rave reviews across the country for his portrayal of the brash Lewis. Reviewers have praised Kaye for not only his comic timing, but also his mad piano skills -- coupled with some extraordinary body contortions.
"With his wild, flopping hair constantly going the opposite way of his body, Kaye's Lewis was a dazzling man-child, stretching seamlessly across the stage while his fingers stayed on the piano," David John Chavez wrote earlier this month in the San Jose Examiner.
The British-born Kaye said playing the role of the Southern icon -- also known as "The Killer" -- has been a perfect fit for his personality and skill set.
"I'm just like that onstage," Kaye said. "I'm totally involved in the music and totally unaware of what else is going on around me at the time. I'm just playing and kind of completely immersed in it."
Kaye's father is also a pianist and the young Kaye began taking lessons at an early age. However, he never enjoyed practicing, wasn't good at reading music and put the piano aside for a while. Fortunately, he came back to it later and taught himself how to play by ear. Kaye said he was greatly influenced by Elton John and Stevie Wonder.
When he won the role of Lewis, Kaye said he had to familiarize himself with the iconic performer.
"I really didn't know anything about him. I didn't even know if he was white or black," Kaye said. "I wasn't exposed to the rock 'n' roll of the '50s, as my parents were too young for that and my grandparents were too old.
"My grandparents were probably the ones that disapproved of it," he added with a laugh.
Thanks to YouTube and Lewis' autobiography, it didn't take long for the energetic Kaye to find a kindred spirit. Lewis is famous for his lively stage presence. A pioneer of rock 'n' roll, he once set a piano on fire after a live performance. His career suffered after it was revealed he had married his 13-year-old cousin.
It may seem odd that a Brit is playing a Southerner, but it happens more often the people imagine, and Kaye is enjoying the challenge.
"It actually makes it easier to go from Northern England to Southern America because they are both quite broad accents," Kaye said. "The vowels are wide and it makes it easier to get from one to the other."
Blast from the past
Ferris and Martin said they are not trying to impersonate or create a caricatures of their respective characters. Rather, they are working to capture the "essence" of the men.
"I try to approach it from a very natural sort of a way," Ferris said. "I'm a musician who has spent a lot of time in rooms playing and singing and hanging out and jamming with guys. So why not approach it the same?"
They are looking forward to bringing the show to Utah and say audiences are in for an adrenaline-filled blast to the past.
"We want people to go in there with an open mind and be ready to have a laugh and have fun and enjoy the music," Kaye said. "That's really what it's about. That's what rock 'n' roll is all about."
‘QUARTET’ AT GATEWAY
Prior to opening at the Capitol Theatre, the cast of the national touring production of “Million Dollar Quartet” will be performing live on Tuesday, May 29, at The Gateway in Salt Lake City.
This is a preview performance to support the Broadway Across America engagement of the hit show, which runs through June 3 at the Salt Lake City theater.
The event is open to the public. The free performance begins at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 29, by the fountain at the Gateway, located along 400 West between 200 South and South Temple in Salt Lake City.