Million Dollar Quartet
On Dec. 4, 1956, the founder of Sun Records hosted an impromptu jam session at the label’s Memphis studio, said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. Sam Phillips’ performers included young upstarts Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins—the only time the four shared a studio. That meeting “has entered music history as one of those golden-hued, fantastical hours in which a whole pantheon of gods frolicked together,” and it’s the setting for Million Dollar Quartet, a “jukebox musical” currently at Chicago’s Apollo Theater. Directors Floyd Mutrux and Eric Schaeffer have created a rollicking 90 minutes of performances that are “genial, winning, and persuasive without lapsing into hackneyed or overripe impersonation.”
“Great balls of fire! Here’s a hit,” said Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune. The cast, “top-drawer artists in their own right,” skillfully deliver snapshot essences of their characters while singing and performing their own instruments. As Cash, Lance Guest is even more convincing than Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Walk the Line. As Lewis, Levi Kreis sets the keys afire with his rendition of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Rob Lyons “oozes edge and talent” as the embittered Perkins, angry that Phillips has allowed Elvis to steal “Blue Suede Shoes.” Only Eddie Clendening stumbles with his perhaps-too-humble take on the King. Still, audiences should “enjoy the show’s re-creation of a night of four-pronged genius with its collective hair down.”
Script writers Mutrux and Colin Escott “take a stab at injecting some drama into the jam session,” said Steven Oxman in Variety. They center the drama on Phillips by imagining this as the day that Cash and Perkins both tell him they’re bolting for bigger labels. Brian McCaskill plays Phillips as a tragic man who nurtured great talent only to lose it, but there’s not quite enough conflict here to keep things going. Many scenes also lack clear relation to the songs. But “the group sure sounds good together.” Think of Million Dollar Quartet as a revue rather than a real musical, and get ready for some rockin’.