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Million Dollar Quartet
By Elyse Sommer
Depending on your passion for rock 'n roll you'll think " It's All Right" that a barely visible plot thread is the r'aison d'être for "A Whole Lotta Shakin Goin' On" at a Broadway theater rather than a concert hall. The performers standing in for four rock 'n' roll legends are "Great Balls of Fire," and will send much of the audience into a red-hot frenzy of head bobbing and mouthing the lyrics. In fact, on the night I was there it looked as if they'd all caught a "Fever" at this lively "Party."
The time is 1956 shortly before Christmas and the scene is Sam Phillips' (Hunter Foster)the financially frought Sun Records studio in Memphis. The set-up is a recording session by Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons), his band (Corey Kaiser and Larry Lelli), and wannabe rockstar Jerry Lee Lewis (Levi Kreis) as the session pianist. This turns into a liquor lubricated jam session with the arrival of two of Phillips' most successful proteges. That would be Johnny Cash (Lance Guest as a gentlemanly and still very young but married with children young man in black) and Elvis Presley (Eddie Clendening, still more shy than cocky and somewhat overwhelmed by success that includes a movie).
This one-time get-together actually happened and was taped by Phillips but wasn't produced for public consumption until more than 30 years later in CD format. Anyone owning one of those CDs will see that the stage show concocted by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux (from Escott's book Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll) to make this less a concert masquerading as a full-fledged musical version includes big hits not on the original tape.
With all those terrific rock 'n' roll, gospel, R&B and country tunes to be sung, the thinness of the plot and the often awkward transitions between belting out songs and very brief sequences of dialogue, narration and occasional flashbacks becomes irrelevant. At least it does for the fans who grew up during rock 'n' roll's early years —the ones who are this show's core audience. For them Million Dollar Quartet is all about the music which they know well enough to rock along joyously and turn every song into a standing ovation.
Naturally, a musical whose chief audience appeal is a replay of musical memories is only as good as the performers standing in for the immortal originals. And so to repeat, this foursome does indeed rock!
Except for Lance Guest, who plays Johnny Cash, their backgrounds are as concert and recording artists rather than stage actors. All look and sound reasonably like their role models and handle what dialogue there is convincingly enough to give us a picture of four different young men from humble backgrounds, all enormously talented and ambitous and still untainted by their future problems with substance abuse and women.
Interestingly, while Elvis was already a star at the time of this get-together, the most impressive performance in the show comes from the low man on the totem pole, Levi Kreis. His energy and often acrobatic piano playing is quite amazing. (Kreis is also credited with additional musical arrangements).
Since Million Dollar Quartet now has a presence on Broadway as well as in Chicago the producers undoubtedly have hopes for their show to be another Jersey Boys, the megahit about another group of mid-50s singers who became superstars. To support these hopes they've brought in a team of top of the line theater crafts magicians — set designer Derek McLane, costumer Jane Greenwood and lighting wizard Howell Binkley. But while Million Dollar Quartet is a slice of music history, you nead a whole loaf for a Jersey Boy sort of hit.
There's no question that the boys from Memphis have interesting lives and careers and their stage alter egos have musical talent to spare. However, since they make wonderful music together just once it's hard to develop this into a three-dimensional group portrait or to explore the joys and pitfalls of a group coming together and coming apart over the years. Instead of a time spanning show with equal emphasis on book and music, Million Dollar Quartet is an hour and 45 minute concert by a group of dynamic musicians that's interspersed with some enlightening narrative elements and winding up with a wonderfully rousing and glitzy 15-minute encore.
Million Dollar Quartet's focal character and narrator is actually the Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips, who earned his stripes as Father of Rock 'n' Roll by helping singers like Presley and Cash tap into their musical souls. He's a promote, and something of a father figure, not a member of the group. While Hunter Foster brings strong musical theater credentials and good ol' boy charm to the role, he doesn't get to sing a single song, except as part of the group curtain call. This makes for historic accuracy but is a bit frustrating when one thinks of Frankie Valli's integral contribution to both the music and libretto of Jersey Boys. I couldn't help wondering if Foster's constantly hitching up his pants was his way of his sublimating the urge to belt out a song of his own.
The brief non-singing sequences do fill us in on the backgrounds of these immortal personalities and hint at the troubles that permeated their lives (like Jerry Lee Lewis's multiple marriages, with the one to his 13-year-old second cousin a career busting scandal). But you'll have to Google over to sites like Wikipedia for more biographical details. Though the conflicts among the assembled talents probably happened over time they work well within the show's tight framework (notably Perkins' anger that Phillips allowed Elvis to become the name associated with " Blue Suede Shoes" which Perkins considered his song).
The evening's main tension focuses on whether narrator Phillips will hold on to the singers he nurtured ("If you've got talent, I'll pull it out of you"), The climax basically comes down to answering the question as to whether or not Phillips, who put the records he cut into his car to sell his singers, will get the stars he mentored to renew their contracts —particularly Johnny Cash, since Elvis has already gone to RCA after Phillips sold his contract for $40,000 to deal with debts.
Million Dollar Quartet does round out the songfest by having Elvis accompanied by a gorgeous female singer with powerful pipes (Elizabeth Stanley expanding the cast's stage credentials). Whatever its future on Broadway, even if you come to the Nederlander without every lyric of these songs embedded into your memory, you can enjoy these look-and sound-alikes' relentlessly energetic delivery of so many iconic songs.
You can't help but respond when you hear Guest's very Cash-like rumbling "Folsom Prison Blues," see Clendening' bursting out of his still young persona whenever he starts strumming his guitar — or hear all four men delivering a rousing "Down by the Riverside." Escott and Mutrux gave the most dialogue to the less iconic Perkins and Lewis, and Kreis especially makes the most of his attention grabbing musical virtuosity and asides about his life experiences that at twenty already include a bigamous second marriage. The music would probably sound even better if it weren't amped up for a big space, but it's not as ear drum shattering as the constant shouts of the middle aged born-again-teenager I was unfortunate enough to have sitting next to me.
If you don't like spoilers, skip the next sum-up paragraph and jump forward to the production notes and song list. . .
When Phillips presents Cash with the renewal contract, the man in black doesn't sign on the dotted line as he's already joined Elvis at RCA. Perkins is also jumping ship. But that doesn't stop all four young men from hanging around for that million dollar extended encore. And there's no need to feel sorry for Phillips. Selling Elvis's contract too soon and too cheaply and not holding on to either Cash and Perkins didn't land him in the poorhouse. The Holiday Inn investment he mentions in passing made him a huge fortune and, like the stars whose talents he recognized and mentored, he too ,ade make it into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of fame.