Back in the '50s, some people thought rock 'n' roll was "the devil's music." It was "temptation, fornication and damnation in that order," Jerry Lee Lewis explains in the new Broadway show "Million Dollar Quartet."
But don't worry: This rockabilly musical is as wholesome as a PBS concert -- the only thing lacking is a pledge drive.
On Dec. 4, 1956, Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins jammed at the Sun Records studio in Memphis. That historic session provides the basis for Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux's stroll down memory lane.
They took some liberties with history and spread the material among the men, even though you barely hear Cash on the original recording. They also have them cover a sample of their hits at the time, whereas in reality the four singers played a lot of hymns.
The cast dutifully ticks off one number after another: "Blue Suede Shoes," "Sixteen Tons," "Long Tall Sally," "Great Balls of Fire" and so on. Sun owner and producer Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster) provides context and keeps things moving between numbers.
The show is economical, which is a polite way to say cheap: a single set, four singers who back themselves up on piano and guitar, plus a drummer and a stand-up bassist.
Since "Million Dollar Quartet" is basically a covers show, everything hangs on the songs. Arranger Chuck Mead, a founding member of the alt-country band BR-549, wisely didn't mess them up. But the performances themselves are merely adequate.
The problem is that these four stars are played by journeymen. Only Levi Kreis, as Jerry Lee Lewis, projects any kind of energy. Lance Guest displays an impressive baritone as Cash, but he trips on half his spoken lines. Robert Britton Lyons' Carl Perkins barely registers, even though the character has a chip on his shoulder that could have made for good drama -- if, you know, the show had been remotely interested in drama.
Worse of all, Eddie Clendening's Elvis is completely neutered. It's impossible to picture this guy driving millions of women crazy. Even the girlfriend who accompanies him to the studio, Dyanne (Elizabeth Stanley, from "Cry-Baby"), seems vaguely bored.
Only at the very end does the adrenaline surge a little. Out of the blue, director Eric Schaeffer goes all Vegas on us. It's not rock 'n' roll in the least, but at least it's fun to watch.
Those teeming hordes of the middle-aged wandering without purpose in the theater district, having seen “Jersey Boys” for the 27th time and been forbidden a 28th by their addiction therapists, can come to rest at last. The new destination: the Nederlander Theater, where “Million Dollar Quartet,” a buoyant new jukebox musical about a hallowed day in the history of rock ’n’ roll, rollicked open on Sunday night.
There’s a lot to like about this relatively scrappy variation on a familiar theme. “Million Dollar Quartet” has a pleasing modesty, taking place as it does on a single afternoon, Dec. 4, 1956, in the rattletrap recording studio of Sun Records in Memphis. Aficionados of the dinosaur days of rock will recognize this date’s momentousness. Mostly by chance, one of the great jam sessions in recording history took place there and then, as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley all gathered to shoot the breeze, harmonize and strum their guitars or thunder away at the piano keys.
Chief among the show’s pleasures is the songbook, naturally, which includes a lot of the obvious chart toppers — “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog” — as well as country songs and spirituals like “Peace in the Valley” and “Down by the Riverside.” But the prime asset of “Million Dollar Quartet,” written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and directed by Eric Schaeffer, is the explosive vitality of the music making.
The actors portraying these pioneers — Robert Britton Lyons as Perkins, Lance Guest as Cash, Levi Kreis as Mr. Lewis and Eddie Clendening as Presley — don’t just play the roles but play the music too. Gifted musicians and likable performers, they tackle with no apparent discomfort the unenviable chore of impersonating some of the most revered names in pop music, from their slick pompadours right down to their frisky, agile fingertips.
To play the B-side for a bit, “Million Dollar Quartet” hardly avoids the artificial and the formulaic as it lays out the various paths that led to this fabled gathering. The show is narrated by Sam Phillips (the ever-genial Hunter Foster), the founder of Sun Records, where all four of these musicians had their start. Phillips steps forward in between songs to annotate the story with informative asides or to re-enact his discovery of each of these Southern boys, all poor, ambitious and fired up by the combustible commingling of two strains of local music, country and rhythm and blues, that helped give birth to rock.
It’s an unavoidably square device that recalls PBS documentaries — you half expect the 90-minute show to break for a pledge drive: “If you’re enjoying these oldies but goodies, give now!” — but the sometimes canned storytelling gets the job done, setting the scene for those unfamiliar with Phillips’s central role in the careers of the main characters. To add a frisson of drama to the proceedings, Mr. Escott and Mr. Mutrux depart from the factual record to suggest that the setting of Sun may be imminent as the boys gather to lay down a few riffs.
As Phillips ruefully informs us, he has sold Presley’s contract to RCA in order to keep Sun alive. He produced a smash for Perkins with “Blue Suede Shoes,” but hasn’t been able to come up with a follow-up. Cash has broken through to the big time, but his contract is about to expire. Phillips has a new three-year extension ready, and is expecting Cash to come by and sign it this afternoon, ensuring the future of the company, at least for the immediate future. Meanwhile Phillips is supervising a Perkins recording session, to which he has invited his latest discovery, Lewis, to add his flaming keyboard licks.
All of which is fairly smoothly integrated into the flow of the jam session, but is incidental to the real purpose of the show, which is to let the performers cut loose on a hit parade of early favorites, providing the audience with blast after blast of sweet nostalgia. (Corey Kaiser, on bass and in the nominal role of Perkins’s brother, and Larry Lelli on drums round out the band.)
The four principals have been with the show since it opened two years ago in Chicago, where I first saw it. They have relaxed into their roles, improving as actors even as they’ve kept up the intensity of their musical performances (most have stronger backgrounds in music than theater) and together conveying a believable sense of the mutual respect and country-fried camaraderie among these friendly rivals.
Mr. Kreis has the flashiest, borderline-cartoonish role as the hot-tempered, cocky Lewis, the young up-and-comer who has the most to prove. Whether he’s making sly moves on Presley’s girlfriend (Elizabeth Stanley, gamely playing window dressing) or exchanging acid wisecracks with Perkins, Mr. Kreis’s Lewis has a brash goofball charm (“He looks like a demented Harry Connick Jr.,” my companion accurately noted), and his thrashing keyboard style is an impressive approximation of Mr. Lewis’s febrile dexterity.
Mr. Lyons’s role as Perkins could be seen as the easiest — he’s not the top-shelf legend the others are — or the hardest, for the same reason. With his blue eyes leering beneath dancing eyebrows, Mr. Lyons is an exciting singer and does a fine job of conjuring Perkins’s jangling rockabilly guitar style.
Mr. Clendening is the most obvious look-alike, with Presley’s handsome baby face and prominent chin dimple. He has a smooth crooner’s voice, hips with an easy twitch and the vocal mannerisms of the young Presley down pat. Despite his national fame, Presley, at the time the show is set, had been chastened by a disastrous stand in Las Vegas, where he opened for Shecky Greene, and Mr. Clendening’s performance is inflected with a gentle diffidence suggesting the insecure kid inside the teen idol. (This Vegas tidbit occasions the evening’s funniest in-joke, which you might just be able to guess.)
Mr. Guest gives the most nuanced and developed performance as the laid-back Cash, gentle spirited and troubled at having to break with the man who made his career. Mr. Guest has improved immeasurably in channeling Cash’s midnight-hued voice, and his cool, idiomatic performances of Cash’s songs received the strongest responses at the performance I saw.
But audiences with any affection for the music will most likely enjoy most of “Million Dollar Quartet” for the same reasons they’ve been flocking to “Jersey Boys” since its opening. And musically “Quartet” is far more satisfying, eschewing as it does the cut-and-paste style of “Jersey Boys,” which sometimes truncated the songs just when they were taking off.
The splashy encore, when the plot is finished and the guys don glittery suits descended from on high, whips the crowd into a predictable frenzy. But for me the most rewarding moments in the show were the more casual ones, when the four singers joined together to harmonize on those spirituals. These were among the songs actually played at this impromptu gig — most of the playlist in the show was not — and they give the strongest indication of the magic that must have taken place, as four great musicians with troubled lives and complicated careers came together to forget everything but what they loved to do most: express the riotous joy, beauty and sadness of life in songs that shoot straight for the soul.
So now we know the truth: Elvis wasn't nearly as sexy as Carl Perkins or as charismatic as Jerry Lee Lewis.
That revelation, however fictional, is the most entertaining aspect of Million Dollar Quartet (* *½ out of four), the patronizing new jukebox musical that opened Sunday at the Nederlander Theatre.
Broadway's latest attempt to cash in on aging rock fans' nostalgia ostensibly takes us back to a December day in 1956, when Presley, Perkins, Lewis and Johnny Cash joined forces for a once-in-a-lifetime jam session.
The setting was the Memphis studios of Sun Records, and the results were recorded for posterity. The audio captures the icons — with the possible exception of Cash, whose participation outside of posing for photos has been questioned by some music pundits — covering rootsy oldies and spirituals, along with a sprinkling of the era's popular tunes.
The show includes some of those songs, but it's essentially a greatest-hits showcase, using the star-studded occasion as an excuse to trot out such proven crowd-pleasers as Blue Suede Shoes,Hound Dog, I Walk the Line and Great Balls of Fire, to name a few.
The plot, for anyone who cares, is a truncated, oversimplified retelling of the artists' successes and struggles with Sun, whose legendary founder, Sam Phillips, also is a character. The musicians are relegated to stereotypes: Presley is the gentle but ambitious charmer, Perkins the righteous maverick, Cash the religious family man, Lewis the boastful upstart.
Luckily, director Eric Schaeffer has enlisted some exuberantly talented performers to reincarnate the idols. Most have more experience as singers and musicians (they play their own instruments) than actors. But only Eddie Clendening, the velvet-throated young man cast as Presley, shows a hint of reticence; actually, he's out-Elvised by Robert Britton Lyons' rugged, feral Perkins.
Levi Kreis' loose-limbed, flamboyantly comical Lewis proves equally stage-worthy, and Lance Guest, who boasts the most theater credits, brings a suitable gravity to Cash. Whether shooting the breeze or playing the hits — the latter are enhanced by Chuck Mead's muscular arrangements — the four lend a bit more authenticity to the proceedings.
Sadly, the same can't be said for the musical-theater veterans who fill out the cast. Baby-faced Hunter Foster, trying to portray Phillips as a swaggering Southern business honcho, suggests a precocious teenager playing Big Daddy in a high school production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Elizabeth Stanley looks luscious as a girlfriend of Presley's who attended the actual session, though her role is elevated here to a supporting singer. But crooning a mannered Fever and a cartoonishly overheated I Hear You Knockin', Stanley reminds us that not all Broadway babies have an affinity for that old-time rock 'n' roll.
All told, you're better off staying home and taking some old records off the shelf.