There’s a whole lot of shaking going on at the Nederlander Theater, and it’s not just onstage. The rocking and rolling production of Million Dollar Quartet is so contagious that its energy spreads into the audience, many members of which will most likely be on their feet, singing and dancing along before the curtain falls.
A fictional re-telling of an actual event, Million Dollar Quartet is based off of a recording made in December of 1956, when Elvis Presley (Eddie Clendening) Johnny Cash (Lance Guest), Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Levi Kreis) gathered at Sun Records for an impromptu jam session. The event was organized by Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records (affably played by Hunter Foster). Elizabeth Stanley rounds out the cast as Dyanne, a girlfriend of Elvis, who provides backup vocals and lovely window dressing.
The script details the business transactions made behind the scenes, including attempts to re-sign the artists to the label and a possible merger with a larger record company. Phillips is struggling financially and desperately wants to re-sign Cash to the Sun Records, while RCA, with whom Elvis is currently working, wants Phillips to sell his label and join them in New York. The business deals are discussed on the sidelines, scattered in between the musical numbers, which clearly take precedence in the show. It’s a shame, because the themes of loyalty and betrayal, as well as the rich history of rock and roll, could have provided material for a compelling script rather than a series of formulaic scene-fillers.
But the musical numbers are so vivid and entertaining that the lack of a script is almost forgivable. Each of the actors performs solidly, providing real insight into the characters. As Johnny Cash, Guest portrays real confusion and conflict over what direction his career should go in and whether he should remain loyal Phillips, the man who got it all started. Clendening presents a spot-on imitation of Elvis, thankfully without the usual clichéd mannerisms. Lyons’ Carl Perkins is a driven, frustrated man, bitter over the fact that Elvis became famous for singing “Blue Suede Shoes,” which he wrote. And Levi Kreis delivers a frantic, frenzied, and thoroughly entertaining performance as Jerry Lee Lewis, an eager young man on the cusp of fame. The four of them are dynamite when jamming together on their fast-paced, hip-thrusting rock and roll songs like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” And when they take it down a notch for some of the toned-down, spiritual numbers such as “Down By the Riverside,” they are equally as moving and entertaining.
As Dyanne, Stanley performs two numbers with the group and she brings down the house with both of them. It’s quite a task to take the attention away from this quartet, but she pulls it off.
Some of the inside jokes fall flat, such as when Phillips asks Cash where he has been and he responds, “I’ve been everywhere, man,” or when Elvis angrily describes an unsuccessful opening act he performed in Vegas and declares he will never play there again. And the somewhat formulaic ending, when Foster says of “his boys,” “I wish they had had more happiness in their lives,” feels inevitable, but disappointing.
Thankfully, the show doesn’t end when the story does. Instead of a curtain call, the walls of the set fly away, the men don sparkling jackets and perform a rousing encore, teaching the audience just what rock and roll really means.