Million Dollar Quartet Review: Elvis, Johnny Cash…Having A Blast
Those seeking rock ‘n’ roll in Times Square can now find it not only at “Memphis” and the Hard Rock Café (where tuxedos worn by Elvis and Johnny Cash are on display), and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum (where Elvis and Johnny Cash are on display). The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Man in Black, The King of Rockabilly, and The Killer are now playing their early hits every night in “Million Dollar Quartet,” a rousing entertainment that has opened at the Nederlander Theater.
The excuse for “Million Dollar Quartet” – as explained portentously in the posters and other publicity; in the program; and even on the curtain before it rises — is the “actual event” that occurred on December 4, 1956. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, already huge stars and about to get bigger, wound up attending a recording session by Carl Perkins that featured new discovery Jerry Lee Lewis at the Sun Records recording studio in Memphis where they had all begun their careers. It turned into an impromptu jam session. The Memphis Press-Scimitar wrote about the event the next day under the headline “Million Dollar Quartet” and included a photograph:
Those who would be drawn to a show about a single recording session of 1950’s rockers are unlikely to be expecting a Strindberg drama, and they are not going to get it. But “Million Dollar Quartet” is also neither “Jersey Boys” nor “Memphis.”
“Million Dollar Quartet” and “Memphis” have much in common, at least superficially. They take place in the same town during the same period and focus on the same subject – the early years of rock ‘n’ roll. “Memphis,” the Broadway musical that opened last October and has become a surprise hit, is inspired by the actual radio DJ Dewey Phillips, who most famously asked Elvis on the air what high school he had attended, so listeners would know he was white. “Million Dollar Quartet” revolves around Sam Phillips (presumably no relation) who was the head of Sun Records and the person who had discovered Elvis and the other three, and presided over their jam session. Sam Phillips was even originally a radio DJ like Dewey Phillips.
Yet “Memphis” is an attempt at a traditional, original Broadway musical, albeit using rock music. There are fictitious characters, new music written in the style of the period, a lot of (really good) dancing, many scenes and colorful sets, and an involved plot, although the plot is the show’s weakest link.
“Million Dollar Quartet” uses the real-life characters and the actual songs the original performers made big: the 22 songs in the show include “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Hound Dog.” There is no real dancing, of the kind to which Broadway audiences are accustomed, but the performers shake, rattle and roll in convincing imitation of these rockers’ exciting early stage shows. It takes place for all but the last ten minutes in a cramped old recording studio, and then switches to a generic Vegas-like stage. As for a plot, you can do the math: In a show lasting about 100 minutes, with 22 songs (plus one reprise), each about three to four minutes long (and none of them meant to advance any plot), there is little time for much of a story, nor even much non-musical interaction.
Oh, the characters speak. And there is a real actor to play Sam Phillips – Hunter Foster, a veteran of more than a half-dozen Broadway musicals, including “Little Shop of Horrors,” for which he received a Tony nomination. Foster as Phillips occasionally addresses the audience directly (“It’s no secret it turned out good for everyone, career-wise”), but he mostly interacts with his “boys,” including brief flashbacks of the moments when each first entered Sun in search of a music career. There are also attempts to create some kind of dramatic tension: Sam has to decide by the end of the day whether he will sell out to RCA so that he can work again with Elvis Presley, whose contract RCA had bought from Sun a year earlier. Johnny Cash is hesitant to tell Sam that he has signed with another record company. Carl Perkins, who has been on the down-slide after Elvis played Perkins’ composition “Blue Suede Shoes” on the Ed Sullivan Show, is hoping to revive his career, and resents the newcomer, Jerry Lee Lewis. Lewis is such a hick that he was impressed that the hotel’s outhouse was indoors, yet he is also a wild man, brazenly sure he will be bigger than Elvis. There is even a fictitious character, a singer girlfriend of Elvis named Dyanne, who has some of the best numbers in the show, and serves the dramatic device of sounding board for the other characters’ back story and current thoughts. (Elvis did bring a date named Marilyn Evans to the session, but she was a dancer, and she surely didn’t sing “Fever”).
While it is unlikely you will find any of this riveting, it is rarely annoying (the exception being the once or twice the music is interrupted mid-song for a dramatic scene), and I did learn some interesting tidbits: Presley originally wanted to sing Dean Martin songs, for example; Cash, Lewis and Presley all had brothers who died young. (“Big brother, it ain’t looking too good for you,” Carl Perkins jokes to his brother Jay, who is his bass player.)
“Million Dollar Quartet,” however, is unlike “Jersey Boys,” the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a musical whose success has been due in part to the interesting story of a group that had existed in relative obscurity despite its string of pop hits. The appeal of “Million Dollar Quartet” is the precise opposite; much of the audience’s interest in the scenes in-between the songs depends on what we already know about these familiar figures: The biggest laugh comes when Elvis, complaining about being booed at a recent gig, tells Sam “I swear I’ll never play Vegas again.” The show plays to audience expectations, which is why the musicians at the Nederlander mostly perform rock hits rather than the actual gospel, country and rhythm-and-blues songs that Presley, Perkins, Cash and Lewis reportedly played together during that Sun jam.
The effort to hype the jam session into a significant moment in history is silly, a part of the unfortunate tendency of rock fans to turn iconoclasts into icons, and confuse “Shake it baby, shake” with the Declaration of Independence. (“Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t a fad,” Sam Phillips says at one point in the show. “It’s a damn revolution.”) It is hardly a rare thing to have big-name musicians play together – think of We Are The World; The Travelling Wilbury’s – and three of the four musicians in “Million Dollar Quartet” previously had even toured together.
What “Million Dollar Quartet” has to offer is not significance or insight, but nostalgia with the gauze removed, at least during the songs themselves, which are re-created with a you-are-there excitement by four genuinely talented young performers who have good voices, move well and play their own instruments. As effective as they are in presenting the sounds and the style of the characters they are playing, at least one stands out as something better than just a good impersonator. Levi Kreis, a recording artist in his own right and a mean man on the piano, plays the niggling, twitchy, sophomoric, sexy Jerry Lee Lewis so convincingly that he, like his character, seems headed for stardom.
A cynic might see the rockers of “Million Dollar Quartet” as the most expensive cover band in America (with a regular ticket costing as much as $136.50.) But this is a show sure to satisfy the rabid fans of early rock ‘n’ roll, of which there are undoubtedly enough to fill the 1,200-seat Nederlander for many years, as there have been for the version of this show still playing in Chicago. “Million Dollar Quartet” is also the kind of entertainment where a hard-core rocker can bring his grandson, and both will have a blast.
Million Dollar Quartet
at the Nederlander Theater (208 West 41st Street)
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Scenic design by Derek McLane, lighting design by Howell Binkley, costume design by Jane Greenwood, sound design by Kai Harada, musical arrangements and supervision by Chuck Mead
Eddie Clendening as Elvis Presley, Lance Guest as Johnny Cash, Levi Kreis as Jerry Lee Lewis, Robert Britton Lyons as Carl Perkins, Hunter Foster as Sam Phillips, Elizabeth Stanley as Dyanne.
Running time: about 100 minutes without intermission
Ticket prices: $45 to $136.50. A lottery for $30 front row seats will be held 2 hours before each performance.
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