Entertainment » Theatre

Million Dollar Quartet

by Jonathan Leaf
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Apr 20, 2010

How do they do two shows on Wednesday and Saturday, a matinee and an evening performance?

That will be your first question after seeing Million Dollar Quartet, the joyous, utterly vital new jukebox musical that just opened at the Nederlander Theater. The show is in part a staged rockabilly concert and in part a slim tale of the ups and downs of the popular music business. The setting is Memphis's Sun Studios and the time is a few weeks before Christmas 1956. Four Sun vocalists - Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash - have turned up one night for an impromptu jam session, one to which a fictional Elvis girlfriend, played by Elizabeth Stanley, joins in.

What dramatic tension the show offers comes principally through some effective but improbable hokum: Cash and Perkins have agreed to move to Columbia Records as Elvis has previously slid over to RCA. But Sun's founder Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster) is intent on resigning them that night, quite unaware of their plans and about to be left feeling used and abandoned.

This plot is like the jokes you've heard before which the musicians toss off at one another in between sets. It's far from brilliant stuff, but with performers this good working under Eric Schaeffer's fleet and polished direction it serves its purpose.

Two surprisingly memorable lines in the script are ascribed to Johnny Cash, who remarks that Phillips' record distribution is so poor that the best way to contain communism would be have to Sun distribute it. He adds to this by observing that only drunks in alleyways seem to get easy access to their records and that unfortunately "drunks don't buy many records. They just record them."

All of the show's musicians are terrific, and the music roars with life. Better still, each of the four performers playing the four famous originals who really did meet up in 1956 at Sun Studios effectively portray these very recognizable stars - without falling into parody.

How do they do two shows on Wednesday and Saturday, a matinee and an evening performance?

Lance Guest in the role of Johnny Cash is especially effective in conveying the Man In Black's laconic persona. But Levi Kreis as Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Clendening as Elvis also ably render the mix of grandiosity and insecurity within the Killer and the suave, charismatic sexuality of the King.

It's surprising to see Hunter Foster, playing Phillips, taking on the main non-singing role in a musical, but his performance is superb, and it holds the show together.

Robert Britton Lyons, as Perkins, shows his immense dexterity as a guitarist,. If Elizabeth Stanley is perhaps less than a great actress, she is adorable and exceptionally easy on the eyes as Elvis's torch-singing squeeze.

All this praise aside, if you are going to see the show, you may wish to know that the musical presentation on the stage is as inaccurate and contrived as is the show's plot. The quartet referred to in the title mostly sang gospel music that night with only a smattering of rock'n'roll, although the show depicts things the other way around.

A further and possibly even more serious anachronism shows up in the musical styles of the evening. In those days, Caucasian pop singers put much more emphasis on clean enunciation of the lyrics. Listen to the actual Sun sessions, and you can hear every word sung.

The pervasive affectations of contemporary pop which trace their lineage back to the styles of often inebriated Black blues singers who did not sing clearly are in great degree a later phenomenon. Moreover, the manner of vocal harmony in the Sun sessions, reflecting the singers' church choir training, was much more precise.

That said, this is a fast-paced and very fun show. The audience I saw it with loved it. So, if you have the bucks and are looking for an undemanding and enlivening evening, go see it.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.


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