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Million Dollar Quartet

This pleasant but shallow musical about Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins could use more theatrical electricity. logo
Levi Kreis, Elizabeth Stanley, Eddie Clendening,
Hunter Foster, Lance Guest, and Robert Britton Lyons
in Million Dollar Quartet
(© Joan Marcus)
On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins got together for an impromptu jam session. This historic event serves as the inspiration for the new Broadway musical, Million Dollar Quartet, now at the Nederlander Theatre. But while the tuner is pleasant enough and includes a good selection of songs made popular by these artists, it's also rather shallow and could use more theatrical electricity.

The original concept by Floyd Mutrux is a good one, but the book by Mutrux and Colin Escott is clunky, and director Eric Schaeffer has been unable to transcend its limitations. And while audiences are likely to be familiar with several of the personalities depicted, there's very little character development within the musical itself.

The narrative follows Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster), who has received an offer to sell his company and come work for RCA. As he mulls over his decision, he oversees a recording session with Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons), with young up-and-comer Lewis (Levi Kreis) as session pianist. Phillips has also invited Cash (Lance Guest), for the express purpose of getting the singer to renew his contract, and Presley (Eddie Clendening) also drops by, with date Dyanne (Elizabeth Stanley) in tow.

Phillips often speaks directly to the audience, providing background information and commentary. As he describes how he met each of these four artists whom he discovered, we also get awkward flashbacks that transition into musical numbers. Several times, the book scenes interrupt the natural flow of a song, most egregiously during what should be Lewis' big number, "Great Balls of Fire." The musical had been building up to showing off what this young kid can really do, but when Lewis finally sings his signature song, it's at a point in the show in which Phillips has just heard some bad news and storms out of the recording studio. Lewis is literally relegated to the background as a rather sentimental scene between Phillips and Dyanne takes center stage instead.

Million Dollar Quartet's greatest strengths are the songs themselves, and the talented actor/musicians who perform them. Kreis is particularly impressive as Lewis, bursting with energy while playing the piano in an eccentrically explosive manner. Admittedly, his spoken dialogue is not as sharp, and it's often difficult to tell whether or not his Lewis is trying to be funny or if he's expressing sincerity.

Clendening does a passable vocal impression of Elvis, but he lacks the kind of sexual charisma that made The King stand out. And while it's fine for that aspect of his persona to be played down while hanging out with the boys in the studio, it's notably missing from his big encore number, which is supposed to be akin to a concert performance. Guest delivers a rather low-key performance, but sounds terrific as Cash, particularly in his rendition of "Riders in the Sky." Lyons gives Perkins a kind of wiry edge, even if sometimes the actor indicates the character's intentions and moods too broadly.

Interestingly, one of the most dynamic performances comes not from the central quartet, but Stanley's Dyanne, whose interpretation of "Fever" is red-hot. Foster does what he can with rather mediocre dialogue, and while it's understandable given the concept of the musical that we never get to really hear him sing, it's also disappointing, as he's the biggest musical theater star on the stage.

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