Million Dollar Quartet

By Pearl Chen

With the 64th Tony season underway, Best Musical nominee Million Dollar Quartet just might be the dark horse come awards night June 13. On the surface, it looks like a musical that grandparents would like — a soundtrack of early rock ‘n’ roll hits by legends Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The four stars aligned for one historic, impromptu jam session on December 4, 1956 at Sun Records, and the show lets us peek into their immortalized meeting. Yes, the playlist is dated, though the production (transplanted from Chicago) is anything but. For 95 minutes, the Nederlander Theater is transformed into one absolutely explosive, wildly entertaining concert hall. If this is what grandparents listened to when they were young, then boy did my generation miss out.


(From left:) Robert Britton Lyons, Levi Kreis, Eddie Clendening and Lance Guest. All photos by Joan Marcus.

Unlike most jukebox musicals, Million Dollar Quartet doesn’t just roll through a roster of songs but actually weaves them seamlessly into a simple but passable plot: Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster) — the “father of rock ‘n’ roll” — is trying to hold onto the company of young talent he has discovered. He’s already lost Elvis (Eddie Clendening) to RCA Records and doesn’t know that Johnny Cash (Lance Guest), a chart-topper by this point, is about to jump ship as well. Master guitarist Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons), writer of “Blue Suede Shoes,” is bitter that Elvis stole his spotlight and credit and is hankering for another hit. And newcomer pianoman Jerry Lee Lewis (Levi Kreis) is eager to prove himself among these burgeoning recording legends.

Shortly before Christmas in 1956, these eventual rock ‘n’ roll greats mesh their personalities and their talents together in Memphis, singing gospel numbersĀ  like “Down by the Riverside,” later released on a record. The show, however, also reimagines their meeting by throwing in many of their greatest hits, like “Hound Dog,” “Walk the Line,” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Elizabeth Stanley, playing the girlfriend Elvis is rumored to have brought to this session, rounds out the cast with memorable covers of her own, including a tastefully sultry “Fever.” The result is a truly captivating production — filled with both high-octane energy and soothing a cappella harmonies — showing without a doubt why such music became so iconic in American history.

As musicians and impersonators, the four leads of Million Dollar Quartet capture the essence of these Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers. Clendening as the young Elvis doesn’t quite sound exactly like the King, but channels enough good looks to be swoon-worthy. Guest as Johnny Cash is almost the opposite — not a complete lookalike but a deadringer in that deep bellow of a voice. I was most impressed, however, by Lyons, who tears up the guitar with virtuosic gusto; and especially Kreis, who steals the show by putting some serious steam into that piano AND for playing the likable, flamboyant goofball of the group. (That Tony nod for Best Featured Actor is well-deserved.) When the four pose and reenact the famous photograph taken of the musicians mid-jam, they create one of the most poignant moments on Broadway.


Levi Kreis, Eddie Clendening, Elizabeth Stanley and Hunter Foster

Throughout the production (directed by Eric Schaeffer), we get to know the fab four not only as musicians but as people. We see, for instance, a young unsure Elvis, timid in his singing style until Phillips mentors him. “Sing to me the way you sing to Jesus,” coaches the producer. These characterizations wouldn’t have been possible without a narrative, written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, that complements the music rather than competes with it. Flashbacks, asides, and scenes slide in and out of the rousing musical numbers easily and naturally, unlike the truncated style of Jersey Boys, which annoyingly didn’t finish songs because of intrusive dialogue. For a jukebox musical, Million Dollar Quartet has the best balance between music and narrative I’ve encountered so far. (And in a season of disappointingly book-less musicals, I was glad to see at least some sliver of humor and dramatic tension mixed in.)


Levi Kreis, Robert Britton Lyons, Dude, Lance Guest, Eddie Clendening

By the end of the show, the four stars throw it all down for an out-of-this-world, glitter-tux encore of greatest hits. My friend and I may have been sitting among a sea of salt-and-pepper hair in the audience, but everything about the atmosphere at this point felt insanely youthful and unbridled. A woman in front of us waved her hands in the air. People clapped and sang along. Jaws hung open at the backwards guitar playing and other crazy shenanigans. In these moments, we see the magic of an era in all its glory — more so than in any other rock musical also nominated for a Best Musical Tony this year (American Idiot and Memphis). Phillips, with the wisdom of a visionary, said it best: “This rock ‘n’ roll thing ain’t a fad — it’s a damn revolution.” Million Dollar Quartet makes you believe every word.

4/5 Stars


Million Dollar Quartet has an open-ended run at the Nederlander Theater (41st street between 7th and 8th). Tickets: $45-125.

Last 5 posts by Pearl Chen

Posted on 01 Jun 2010 at 6:45pm
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