Saturday, April 17, 2010

Million Dollar Quartet

Take the classic 1950s hit “Great Balls of Fire,” change the name to “Great Balls of Embers” (well, maybe eliminate the word “great”), and you’ll have an idea of what to expect from Million Dollar Quartet, the new Broadway jukebox musical about four rock ‘n’ roll legends and the man who helped launch their careers.

The music is good -- "Blue Suede Shoes," "Fever," "Sixteen Tons," "Who Do You Love?," "Riders in the Sky," "I Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues" "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" -- but it’s wasted in this extraordinarily boring, plotless show. I kept wondering when it was going to liven up, but after 45 minutes I realized it wasn’t so I looked in the program to see how soon until intermission so I could get out of there. To my considerable disappointment, I found there wasn’t one, so then I kept checking to program to see how many more songs were left.

The problem is the actors portraying these men have zilch appeal. Elvis Presley (Eddie Clendening), Johnny Cash (Lance Guest), Jerry Lee Lewis (Levi Kreis) and, to a lesser degree, Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons) turned audiences into a frenzy with their music and their raw, country boy sexuality. Under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, these guys get the country boy part OK, but they don’t have half the personality you’d encounter just listening to the records of the original men. Kreis is the best of the bunch, but still comes off as an annoying, self-involved pest rather than a musical wonder. The worst is Clendening, whose Playbill bio lists impressive credits for him as a vocalist and guitarist but not a single one for acting. If you remember those silly rumors in the 1980s that Elvis was still alive, you won’t have any uncertainty watching Clendening. This Elvis is definitely dead.

The musical’s book is by Colin Escott, an author of rock ‘n’ roll history books, and Floyd Mutrux, who conceived and originally directed the musical but whose experience largely is in film writing and directing. Together they’ve produced nod-inducing dialogue about career ups and downs that fills the spaces between songs but does nothing to reveal the souls of these men.

The show is loosely based on a night in early December 1956 when the four singers happened to be at Sun Records’ studio in Memphis at the same time and began jamming. The session was recorded by Sun’s legendary producer, Sam Phillips, played robotically by Hunter Foster with a sometimes unintelligible southern accent. (Surprisingly the recording made that night wasn’t released until the 1980s.)

This was the only time these four powerhouses recorded together. It’s considered the greatest jam session of all time, but if you want to experience the true thrill of this historic event, you probably would be better off buying the recording and skipping this show.

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