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.”