We gave it a B-
Million Dollar Quartet opens with rock?n?roll star Carl Perkins (Britton Lyons) performing his most famous song, ”Blue Suede Shoes.” Thus, the first words the audience hears in this 1956-set musical are that track’s famous opening lines: ”Well, it’s one for the money/Two for the show?” It is an appropriate beginning for a number of reasons — not least because the big question about this latest jukebox musical concerns whether it is really a Broadway show in any real dramatic sense, or just a way to squeeze money from the back catalogs of four rock superstars.
MDQ recreates — or at least is loosely inspired by — the most remarkable, and famous, jam session of all-time. On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins gathered at the Memphis studio of Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. The four singers, in various configurations, ran through a lengthy list of numbers, including ”Don’t Be Cruel,” and the gospel classic ”Peace in the Valley.” They also played a batch of lesser known songs, such as ”You’re the Only Star in My Blue Heaven.” It seems forgivable that, while the latter track is not featured in MDQ, the show does find space for many tracks the quartet almost certainly did not perform on that December day, but that will certainly be familiar to audiences. These include ”Folsom Prison Blues,” sung by Lance Guest’s Cash, ”Great Balls of Fire,” which is performed by Levi Kreis’ Lewis, and ”That’s Alright,” which is essayed with suitable leg-shaking gusto by Eddie Clendening?s Presley.
The vocal performances are mostly impressive, particularly as the four instrument-playing impersonators act as their own on-stage orchestra in cahoots with the sturdy two-man rhythm section of drummer Larry Lelli and bassist Corey Kaiser. Elizabeth Stanley also proves herself a solid chanteuse as Presley?s lady friend Dyanne. Though the idea that Presley?s actual date on that occasion — a dancer named Marilyn Evans — would have been allowed to perform ”Fever” and ”I Hear You Knocking” seems about as likely as the real-life Elvis turning down a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich.
The trouble begins when the singing stops. In many ways, of course, this was also true for these four rock celebrities, who were, in their different ways, rather troubled personalities. You don’t get much a sense of that from their banter between songs. Actually, it is only Lewis and Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster) who are given any kind of emotional depth in Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’ script. The writers also struggle to build a narrative around Phillips’ plan to re-sign the clearly reluctant Cash for another three-year contract. Those familiar with the 2007 rock biopic spoof Walk Hard — in which John C. Reilly’s country star is haunted by the memory of accidentally cutting his brother in half with a machete — may also raise an amused eyebrow when Cash, Presley, and Lewis fall to discussing their respective deceased siblings.
Still there are a couple of nice intentional gags. At one point, Presley complains to Phillips that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had booked him some shows in Vegas opening for comedian Shecky Greene. ”Well, they hated me,” he says. ”Booed me off the stage every night. I swear I’ll never play Vegas again.” Of course, the audience knows that in his later years Presley would do little else except play Vegas. But one can’t help wondering if the City of Sin would also be a better venue for this lightweight show, which closes with its quartet donning sparkly jackets better suited to Liberace than rock legends. B-
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-982-2787)
Opening date: April 11, 2010; Lead performers: Hunter Foster, Eddie Clendening, Lance Guest, Levi Kreis, Britton Lyons; Writer: Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux; Director: Eric Schaeffer; Genre: Musical