Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 11, 2010
Million Dollar Quartet Book by Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux. Original concept and direction by Floyd Mutrux. Inspired by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical arrangements and supervision by Chuck Mead. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Kai Harada. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Eddie Clendening, Lance Guest, Levi Kreis, Robert Britton Lyons, with Elizabeth Stanley and Hunter Foster.
This must surely rank as the first story about any of these titans that isn’t merely uninvolving and unenlightening, but that — despite its aggressive amplification — could be prescribed as a sedative. Conceived by Floyd Mutrux, who also wrote the book (with Colin Escott), the show may deal with a legitimately legendary night in modern music history: December 4, 1956, when all four men collided at Sun Records in Memphis for an impromptu jam session. But if you walk away from Eric Schaeffer’s production remembering anything about what you’ve seen, that may be even more amazing.
Much of the problem is that the four actors playing those greats aren’t exactly tops in the personality department. Eddie Clendening has Presley’s moaning swagger down pat, but doesn’t capture any of the real man’s smoldering sexuality. Lance Guest does an acceptable airport-lounge interpretation of Cash, minus his pervasive slyness and exciting low notes. Levi Kreis shows plenty of “uncorkable” energy (quotation marks and all) as Lewis, and seems to enjoy kicking over stools and playing the piano backwards, but it all feels as affected as a wind-up toy of a fusion reactor. As Perkins, Robert Britton Lyons displays the most natural magnetism of the group, but never lets it blossom into a to-the-bone portrayal.
Hunter Foster, though saddled with the functionary (and unsinging) character of Sun impresario Sam Phillips, who narrates events from some undetermined point in the future, is a far better match for his role as a young go-getter on the rise. He provides far more nuanced line readings and reflective moments, to the point that you eventually yearn for him to be onstage every second just so you can see a real, flesh-and-blood person. Elizabeth Stanley, as Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne, is only on hand to administer brief estrogen injections, but her “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking” reveal a soul that never comes through in any other songs.
That’s Million Dollar Quartet’s second significant failing: It doesn’t convince you that any of what’s happening is truly important. As in all jukebox musicals, the book is an afterthought and acts like it. There are momentary suggestions of tension between Presley and Perkins, the former having ridden the latter’s “Blue Suede Shoes” to stardom on The Ed Sullivan Show; a lame running gag about Lewis’s self-destructive self-confidence; and the only real through line is how each of these four men are building up to breaking away from Sam, who guided them to their first tastes of glory.
But because the evening’s running time is 95 minutes and there are 22 songs to get through, there’s no time to explore — let alone develop — any of these ideas. So they just languish while the four leads barrel through various signature numbers, classic and not: Lewis gets “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On," Cash takes on “Sixteen Tons” and “I Walk the Line,” Presley “That’s All Right” and “Hound Dog,” and Perkins “Matchbox” and “Who Do You Love?”, among plenty of others. They’re electrically accompanied by Corey Kaiser on bass and Larry Lelli on drums, but their skeletal setups and boring renditions make them all sound the same after a while — an achievement of no small (or happy) distinction.
Schaeffer could have done more to give some dramatic shape to the show; his staging is essentially limited to putting the soloists center stage and shoving everyone else away, which only works when you want to look at who’s singing. Jane Greenwood’s costumes and Howell Binkley’s lights are appropriately folksy; and Derek McLane’s set sparks the only instant of surprise during the entire show, when it morphs from a ramshackle recording studio into a ridiculously majestic stadium setup.
This transformation ushers in the de rigueur concert sing-off finale, so over the top and riddled with spangly jackets and wild poses, that it almost makes the ABBA wonderland finale of Mamma Mia! look restrained in comparison. That it doesn’t contribute a whit to your understanding of these men and their unique positions in American culture is beside the point: It’s merely the moment in any impersonation act when the central figures get to move from “the guys before” to “the guys after.” Like everything else in Million Dollar Quartet, it’s at best a fool’s-gold gimmick.