The year: 1956. The place: Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. The players: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. The recording: legendary.
And there you have the setting, characters and concept behind the jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet, at the Kravis Center as part of the Kravis on Broadway series through May 4. The national touring cast, spearheaded by Cody Ray Slaughter as Presley, Scott Moreau as Cash and Vince Nappo as the legendary producer Sam Phillips, brings the quintessential energy, charm and allure of rock ‘n’ roll to Dreyfoos Hall, resulting in 90 minutes of hip-shaking, toe-tapping, piano-tickling renditions of some of the greatest music in the American popular canon.
|The Million Dollar Quartet. Photo by Paul Natkin|
Don’t let the term ‘jukebox musical’ scare you; where so many shows from this genre fail (I’m looking at you We Will Rock You and Rock of Ages) Million Dollar Quartet excels by sticking to the innate drama of the music and the milieu. Much like a bottle episode in a television show, all the action takes place in one setting. And, all the tension comes from the dynamic between recording artists and record producers. Phillips is itching to renew Cash’s contract; Carl Perkins is craving a hit single after losing his baby “Blue Suede Shoes” to Elvis; and, well, Jerry Lee Lewis is just happy to be there and ready to start his career. And that’s it. No artificial scenarios, jumps in timeline or unwarranted melodramatic turns—just the natural and true story of four iconic musicians.
And these guys are musicians. As the lights dim, a voice informs the audience “There ain’t no fakin’, these boys are really playing.” Just in case we didn’t get the message, the company bursts into “Blue Suede Shoes” before Phillips breaks the fourth wall to provide some background information. The quartet members gradually arrive at the studio, but the hum of an upright bass and drums is always there, underscoring monologues, emphasizing jokes and filling out the musical numbers.
|Vince Nappo as Sam Phillips. Photo by Paul Natkin|
Of course, this production is packed with amazing numbers. Each artist’s repertoire is represented, including Cash’s “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” Perkins’ “See you Later Alligator,” Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” and Elvis’ “That’s All Right” and “Hound Dog.” And they’re all phenomenal–and sound remarkably like the originals. In addition, a few a capella hymnals give relief from the rock ‘n’ roll and truly demonstrate the quartet’s vocal chops.
|John Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis. Photo by Paul Natkin|
But what about the acting? These men are, after all, Broadway professionals, so their musical prowess is buttressed by great comedic timing and some spot-on impersonating. Yes, Cody Ray Slaughter and Scott Moreau look exactly like Presley and Cash, respectively, especially from aisle V of the orchestra section. But both also embody the characters’ traits, from Presley’s hip gyrations to Cash’s deep, hearty voice. John Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis and James Barry as Carl Perkins embody the not-as-infamous musicians with aplomb as well. Countryman, in particular, plays a hilarious down-home, attention-seeking country boy, who is unable to sit still and is constantly playing the piano with his fingers, elbows, feet, legs and butt. Needless to say, he was a crowd favorite.
As with any good rock ‘n’ roll show, Million Dollar Quartet ends with a couple encores. With the plotline wrapped up, the boys are able to jump into their greatest hits unencumbered by storytelling and now sporting bedazzled blazers. And though a few audience members scurried out of the hall eager to beat the crowd to the valet stand, you’ll want to stay for every minute. It’s not every day you get to see Johnny Cash bathed in a sea of glitter confetti, to witness Elvis Presley dancing on his tiptoes and to experience an upright-bass player spin his five-foot-tall instrument in the air, exalting the rock gods for their immortal contributions to American music history.