NEW YORK (AP) – Put Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis in a Memphis recording studio and you're bound to make musical fireworks. Maybe even a Broadway show.
That's the premise behind "Million Dollar Quartet," a fictional recreation of their celebrated jam session on Dec. 4, 1956, apparently the only time these music legends ever played together. This high-energy entertainment, which opened Sunday at the Nederlander Theatre, is part jukebox concert, part history lesson of '50s pop music and part cautionary tale about the ups and downs of show biz.
If the story, fashioned by book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, is elemental and often a bit awkward, the musical performances are not – a galvanizing collection of singers and musicians who deliver the songs with an explosive authority that really rocks the house.
The original session was orchestrated by Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, the mastermind behind the early recordings of all four singers. He's the man who pushed them on the road to stardom.
Phillips, played by Hunter Foster with good ol' boy charm, is also the show's nominal narrator. His story is an important part of "Million Dollar Quartet."
"I didn't just wanna play the tunes. I wanted to record them," Phillips drawls early on in the evening.
And what tunes, classics ranging from "Blue Suede Shoes" to "Folsom Prison Blues" to "Long Tall Sally" to "Great Balls of Fire." Particularly as sung and played by the four performers who eerily inhabit these musical giants in their younger, formative years.
Lance Guest is an authentic, grade A Johnny Cash, looking and sounding amazingly like the country-western icon.
As Presley, Eddie Clendening has the most difficult job – capturing the best-known voice in the show and the emotions of the shy, young man bewildered by the enormous attention he has received. Clendening does the King just fine.
Rockabilly star Perkins is perhaps the most interesting character on stage. The singer is bitter because his version of "Blue Suede Shoes" was overshadowed by Presley's later take on the song. Robert Britton Lyons effectively portrays the man's hurt and anger, an anger that has an outlet in his furious yet fabulous guitar-playing.
If there is a scene-stealer in "Million Dollar Quartet," it's Levi Kreis as the more than ebullient Lewis, whose confidence – and his piano-playing – can't be contained.
There is also one other character, Presley's mysterious female companion, here called Dyanne, played by a sexy, red-haired Elizabeth Stanley. She holds her own with the show's other singers, especially on a defiant version of "I Hear You Knocking." Yet her presence is never fully explained.
Eric Schaeffer, who runs the Signature Theatre in Washington's Virginia suburbs, has staged the show with a minimum of fuss. The book heads toward a glum confrontation between Phillips and several of the singers, who are leaving Sun Records for more lucrative contracts with larger recording labels.
Yet the gloom is dispelled quickly when "Million Dollar Quartet" finishes up its curtain calls with high-voltage renditions of "Hound Dog," "Ghost Riders in the Sky," "See You Later Alligator" and the appropriately titled "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." Of course, they get the cheering audience to its feet.