Robert Britton Lyons, Levi Kreis, Eddie Clendening and Lance Guest. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: If you like music by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, you will love this show. If you don't like that music, you will probably still like the show a lot.
Let me be honest. When I first heard of Million Dollar Quartet, I thought it was a musical that I would never care to see. Although the music of the show does not typically come up on my iPod, within ten minutes of the curtain going up, I was a huge fan. Million Dollar Quartet tells the story of four great musicians: Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis who gather at a Memphis recording studio in December of 1956. All four were discovered by producer and Sun Records owner, Sam Phillips, also known as the "Father of Rock and Roll." The four men really did turn up at Sun Records that night for an impromptu jam session but the show adds a plot line and a lot of music to the event to create a thoroughly entertaining evening about the early years of rock and roll. Each of the actors gets to sing the biggest hits of the iconic performers and all four men are incredibly talented. They serve as the band for the evening along with an additional bassist and drummer.
The basic plot is that Sam Phillips is trying to hold on to his stars and keep them from moving to bigger recording companies like RCA and Columbia. Elvis has already left Sun Records and exploded with fame and Phillips does not want to see that happen again with his other artists. The conflict is centered around if they will or if they won't resign with Sun Records. Honestly though, this show is all about the four performers and the musicians they are playing. They each are required to look like someone famous, sound like them, act like them, sing like them and play instruments like them. All four succeed splendidly.
Robert Britton Lyons plays Carl Perkins. He may be the one that people know the least about, but the script does a good job of explaining who he is and what his contribution to rock and roll was. For instance, did you know that he wrote "Blue Suede Shoes" but it was Elvis who sang it on The Ed Sullivan Show and got all the credit? Lyons is great and has the most character interaction with his envy of Elvis' success and wariness of newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis' talent. Lyons plays a mean guitar and sings the hell out of his songs.
Lance Guest is Johnny Cash personified and he gets a laugh with his first line simply because he sounds so much like the real thing. He also gets to sing "Walk the Line" and the audience eats it up when they hear those first familiar strains on the bass. Nods of approval surrounded me every time Guest sang. His physicality is uncanny.
Eddie Clendening gets to play the young, sexy Elvis Presley. His snarl is just right, his hips swivel perfectly, he sings and plays the guitar, and he is able to show that soft side of Elvis that made girls swoon. There was a woman in the front row who seemed to be reliving a childhood fantasy when he sang "Hound Dog" and she had good reason because he seemed like the real thing.
Levi Kreis is astounding as Jerry Lee Lewis. Like a combination of Harry Connick, Jr. and Ray Bolger, he pounds the piano with bravado and never fails to be in the moment. He is constantly interesting to watch, always knows how to get a laugh and the actor is also credited with musical arrangements for the show. He has a look in his eye that says he has a secret and he can't wait to share it with someone. He was great.
Although each of the actors are great when singing solo, they sound even better when they sing as a group. "Down by the Riverside" and "Peace in the Valley" were are beautifully sung pieces with simple harmonies and restrained singing. A complete turnaround from the roof blowing that happens during songs like "My Baby" and "Great Balls of Fire."
Hunter Foster plays Sam Phillips and has little to do compared to the other four men. It's ironic that the one seasoned musical theater performer in the show does not sing. He serves as narrator and gets a few laughs along the way. Elizabeth Stanley plays Elvis' girlfriend, Dyanne. She gets to wail on a couple of songs presumably so that the evening is not a men's night only. Her rendition of "I Hear You Knocking" stopped the show.
Million Dollar Quartet has the potential to be a long-running hit. It fits comfortably in that category of "musicals that my husband would like" or "I don't normally like musicals but I do like this one." It's filled with energy, great performances and familiar songs. The last four songs are a mini concert where each of the quartet gets to sing their biggest hit and the audience loved it. Normally, I am not one who claps along, but by the last song of the night I was doing just that. "A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" is the final number of the show and everyone pulls out all the stops: trick guitar playing, backwards piano playing, lights, jumping, smoke, sequins and amplification. If you don't leave this show with a huge smile on your face, I'd be surprised. Director Eric Schaeffer knows how to keep things moving and makes the show a completely enjoyable evening of rock and roll icons without it seeming like a Legends act in Las Vegas. As one audience member said as he walked out of the theater, "It's better than Jersey Boys."
(Million Dollar Quartet originally played on Broadway at Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41st Street, and now plays off Broadway at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street. Performances are Mondays at 8PM, Wednesdays at 2:30PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2:30PM and 8PM and Sundays at 3PM and 7PM. Tickets are $90 and are available online at telecharge.com. For more show info visit milliondollarquartetlive.com.)