Review: 'Million Dollar Quartet' national tour

December 13, 2011
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Somewhere between a Vegas tribute show and “Jersey Boys,” there’s “Million Dollar Quartet,” the birthed-in-Chicago, booster-rocketed-from-Broadway celebration of the early days of rock and roll.

Inspired by an actual jam session, the jukebox musical brings together Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis for a tune stack and just enough plot to keep things moving.

Perkins is recording a new song for Sun Records. Elvis is back for a visit after jumping to RCA. Cash is at the end of his Sun contract and ready to jump ship. Lewis is the annoying-but-incredibly-talented new kid on the block. And there’s Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, who serves as our narrator.

The piece works beautifully in its national tour (at the Murat through Dec. 18), thanks to engaging performances, solid musicianship, and smart direction. While some pedestrian book writing gets in the way of an effective climax, what “Quartet” lacks in rhythm, it makes up for in spirit. It succeeds in capturing the quartet of groundbreaking talents early enough in their careers that we sense both their youthfulness and their potential. At the same time, our knowledge of how their lives turned out (okay, like half the audience, I had to check Perkins on Wikipedia when I got home) tempers that joy with a touch of melancholy.

Why does this transcend your average tribute show? By recreating performances that weren’t meant for the public, there’s a sense that we are seeing these guys play music for the sake of playing music, not for the money or the fame. That window brings us seemingly closer to these icons. And there’s a kick to that.

Oh, and it should go without saying, the songs are terrific. We’re talking about “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Great Balls of Fire,” after all. If we must have a jukebox musical every season (and the last few years seem to indicate that that’s likely), let them all be as fun, professional, and tuneful as “Million Dollar Quartet.”

 

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  • Great show
    Lou...your review is spot on...saw it on Broadway about a year and 1/2 ago...you are right about the fact that it is about the joy that these young and gifted musicians had making music, and all but Perkins were on the precipice of much bigger commercial success and celebrity, and we all know how that turned out...Lewis' 3rd marriage to his 13 year old cousin that sabotaged his career, and his later colorful domestic life which included the death of his fifth wife that was very suspect (indeed there is a band called "The Dead Wives of Jerry Lee Lewis")...Elvis turning from the consummate rock act to the rhinestone clad Vegas perfomer who died in his bathroom, Cash with his scrapes with the law and addiction who survived all of that, and may have made his best recordings at the end of his life...this is before most of that, before all the trappings that come with fame and fortune seduced and defeated them...and there is a joy in seeing that, in being there, ahead of all that would come...the music is great too, as you noted...as much fun as "Jersey Boys" is, that is pop music exclusively, fun and catchy, but without much substance and certainly disposable...this is some of the seminal music that defined the rock, pop, and country genres for years to come, plus it identifies the influence of gospel music on all of these legendary performers...it captures the joy of a magical time. As you have noted, there are likely going to be more jukebox musicals, as they apparently sell a lot of tickets to people who would not normally be caught dead at a Broadway show...let's hope the next one is as good as this one is, which is pretty darn good. Now if only we could get lots of people to go to the musical shows that don't catalog a bunch of hit records, but feature the work of someone like John Prine, as the local Phoenix did so well recently. John Hiatt musical anyone??

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