Good rockin' tonight at "Million Dollar Quartet"

Mon Apr 12, 2010 8:13am EDT

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NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - One day in December 1956, four future musical legends -- Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins -- happened to gather together for an impromptu jam session at the Memphis studio of Sun Records.

Don't look for "Million Dollar Quartet," the new musical about this fortuitous event, to show what really happened that day. But this wildly entertaining show at the Nederlander Theater wonderfully captures the spirit of these seminal figures who would go on to change the course of popular music.

Conceived and co-written by Floyd Mutrux (who knows more than a little about the subject, having made the film "American Hot Wax," about legendary disc jockey Alan Freed), the show uses the real-life incident as a springboard for a raucous concert featuring many of the stars' hits.

Although the actual session -- recorded for posterity and released commercially decades later -- had the young performers mainly singing rough versions of their favorite country and gospel songs, the show features such classics as Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," Presley's "That's All Right" and so on. (In a nod to historical accuracy, none of the songs featured were written after the encounter took place).

The book, by Mutrux and Colin Escott, telescopes events so as to provide a modicum of dramatic suspense, concentrating mainly on Cash and Perkins' informing Sun head Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster) that they've decided to leave the label and sign with Columbia Records.

It also provides intriguing snapshot portraits of the personalities involved. Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons) is desperate for another hit and resentful that Elvis has performed his song "Blue Suede Shoes" on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Lewis (Levi Kreis) is a studio pianist who is itching to make it big. Cash (Lance Guest), struggling financially, chafes at Phillips' refusal to let him record gospel music. Presley (Eddie Clendening), who already has made his first Hollywood film, is coping with the pressures of newfound fame. And Phillips, who already has lost Elvis to RCA, wants to hold on to the rest of his roster.

Accompanied by a drummer and bassist, the four actor-musicians deliver rousing versions of nearly two dozen classic songs. Yes, the evening occasionally borders on becoming another "Legends in Concert," but the terrific musicianship and incisive characterizations on display offset the Vegas-style atmosphere of the proceedings.

Clendening, admittedly given the toughest assignment, doesn't really manage to suggest Elvis in terms of either looks or charisma. But the other three performers are outstanding: Guest, familiar from films like "The Last Starfighter," sounds uncannily like Cash and movingly portrays his stolid integrity; Lyons, the most musically accomplished, rocks hard in his portrayal of Perkins; and the charismatic Kreis is hugely entertaining (and one hell of a pianist) as Lewis.

In real life, Elvis apparently was accompanied to the studio by a girlfriend. So, in one of the show's more entertaining if fanciful conceits, she's depicted here as a singer (Elizabeth Stanley) who is given the opportunity to perform a sultry "Fever" and a ferocious "I Hear You Knocking."

Running a fast-paced 95 minutes, "Quartet" never wears out its welcome. And audience members would be well advised not to rush out during curtain calls, as the encore is a succession of wildly energetic musical numbers that are the highlights of the show.

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