Peter Marks reviews Broadway debut of 'Million Dollar Quartet'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010

NEW YORK -- Beyond some joshin' and catchin' up, the four good ol' country and rock-and-roll legends who converge on a singular day in 1956 don't have much of import to say to one another. So it's fortunate that in Broadway's "Million Dollar Quartet," they mostly let the music do the talkin'.

Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis are the singers who gather in the Memphis studio of record producer Sam Phillips in this spirited jukebox diversion, buffed to a pleasing gloss by director Eric Schaeffer (of Arlington's Signature Theatre) and musical arranger Chuck Mead. Based in part on an actual event, the show has no delusions of grandeur: It presents itself as a straight-up portrait of an extraordinary jam session.

The lack of pretense is a particular virtue, because the four non-household names who play the singers -- Eddie Clendening, Lance Guest, Robert Britton Lyons and most especially, Levi Kreis as a caffeinated Jerry Lee -- have the vocal chops, the skills with piano and gee-tar and the folksy charm to carry the evening off. Although the loose biographical stitching doesn't add up to much, the show, which had its official opening Sunday night at the Nederlander Theatre, kicks up an exhilarating fuss each time one of the stars takes the mike.

The polish extends to the solos by a fifth performer, a fictitious girlfriend of Elvis's named Dyanne. She becomes a singer here, too, and as portrayed by Elizabeth Stanley, her rendition of the Peggy Lee standard "Fever" summons the requisite volume of heat.

The musicianship sells this entertainment. If the rockabilly rhythms of Perkins or the proto-rocker antics of Lewis don't set your heart to palpitating, then "Million Dollar Quartet" will be lost on you. The calculation is that fans of early rock-and-roll and idolaters of Presley and Cash are of an age and economic level to fill the Nederlander's pews. And for them, the musical will feel at times like a throbbing worship service.

The script by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux finds the four singers -- all of whom had been signed to contracts by the prescient Phillips (Hunter Foster) -- at various stages of their careers: Presley is a Hollywood phenom and already out of the Phillips orbit. Lewis, an unknown, is just entering it. Perkins and Cash occupy uncomfortable middle ground, chafing to leave Phillips to take advantage of more lucrative record offers. Resentment festers, too, in the heart of Perkins, whose "Blue Suede Shoes" was co-opted by Presley.

In the show's consciously laid-back style, the conflict remains on simmer; the guys would rather sing than fight. They take turns playing for each other, traditional spirituals and Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" among the musical's 22 tunes. Years later a recording of the session was released. On this occasion, some license has been taken with song selection, but not in a way that turns the musical into a sham greatest hits concert.

Schaeffer staged the show in Chicago before it moved to New York. He ensures that the evening unfolds smoothly, with each actor-singer finding his way to something far more invigorating than a lounge-act impersonation. Guest, as Cash, does swell by "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line." Clendening creates an intriguingly muted Elvis, one a bit embarrassed in this room of his peers by his outsize star power. And Lyons brings biting playfulness and nifty electric guitar licks to his portrayal of Perkins.

For his manic calorie-burn alone, the energetic Kreis makes the deepest impression. It's the case of a showman playing a showman, and at the angle at which his piano is perched on Derek McLane's realistic recording-studio set, spectators on the left side of the auditorium are getting the prime view of his fingers stampeding up and down the ivories. Then again, the best seats for "Million Dollar Quartet" are any ones within earshot.

Million Dollar Quartet

by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Kai Harada. About 90 minutes. At Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., New York. Visit or call 212-307-4100.

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