How four music legends came together for an impromptu and historic recording session is the basis of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the thin but likeable musical now making its Atlanta debut.
Running through March 17 at the Fox Theatre, “Million Dollar Quartet” brings together Elvis Presley (Cody Slaughter), Jerry Lee Lewis (Ben Goddard), Johnny Cash (David Elkins) and Carl Perkins (James Barry). On December 4, 1956, these four seminal figures came together in the Sun Records studio in Memphis for an unprecedented jam session. It was the only time the four were ever recorded together.
Sam Phillips (Vince Nappo), the head of Sun Records, has had to sell Presley’s recording contract to RCA Records to basically save his studio and record label. On the flip side, his doing so has boosted the success of “Blue Suede Shoes,” written by Perkins and recorded by Presley, and made it a hit. At this particular recording session, earmarked for Lewis and Perkins, Presley stops by with his girlfriend Dyanne (Kelly Lamont), and Cash swings by as well.
The secret to enjoying “Million Dollar Quartet” is knowing what it is, and isn’t, going in. As with most jukebox musicals, the framework takes a back seat to the musical performances. It’s sheer material, with writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux presenting little conflict or drama. Frequently, however, there are compelling touches. Phillips fills us in on the back stories of the four, all Southern boys from poor families, and comments to Lewis that he’s never heard good music emerge from rich folks.
The character of Sam Phillips proves to be the show’s conscience, especially when he realizes that, after he has discovered and taken a chance on these musicians, two won’t be returning to his studio. Nappo has a bittersweet moment when he recognizes this fact but holds his head high, realizing that he still has the young Lewis in tow and a new, unknown singer named Roy Orbison.
For the most part, however, when the singing stops, so does the action. Fortunately, “Million Dollar Quartet” has a much more vibrant score overall than the likes of “Jersey Boys” or “Memphis.” The frequent performances by the quartet drive the show. The evening contains versions of some of these artists’ signature hits — “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Walk the Line,” “Hound Dog” and more. Lamont also sings a sultry, pitch-perfect “Fever,” and the company come together for a few numbers. Perkins’ “Party” is a rousing, crowd-pleasing moment.
It’s sparse stuff, at 90 minutes. It closes with a Las Vegas-y finale featuring individual numbers of the quartet. Cynics may rightfully point out that the most energetic bits of a musical shouldn’t be held until a tacked-on encore, but the producers aren’t stupid. They know what the audience wants and expects.
The actors are all capable musicians who bring their roles to life without making them parodies. No one is able to go more than skin deep, but the characterizations mostly work. Of particular note are Barry and Slaughter, who gives his Presley the requisite swagger. Goddard is the sole misstep. The actor takes Lewis’ manic personality way over the edge. On Broadway, Levi Kreis’ take on Lewis won “Million Dollar Quartet” its only Tony Award in 2010, but Goddard feels as if he wandered in from a “Three Stooges” remake.
If you’re in the mood for a musical with edge, depth and originality, look elsewhere. Far elsewhere. This is an onstage soundtrack, and a deeply nostalgic one to boot, and in that respect it gets the joint shaking.