by Byron Woods
The live band is cooking, and dead ringers for the first generation of rockabilly royalty nail rave-ups from “Who Do You Love” to “Great Balls of Fire.” But even at its full (and considerable) force, the 2007 jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet seems haunted by something surprising, given the supposed durability of the subject matter. It’s hard not to conclude that Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott’s book ultimately celebrates—and mourns—its evanescence.
Yes, history proved Sun Records founder Sam Phillips right when he said “Rock ‘n roll ain’t a fad; it’s a damn revolution.” Even the briefest look around confirms that the culture-wide transformation sparked by this generation remains in progress.
But the way this show re-enacts the night that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis got together to do a few numbers in the studio that first catapulted them to fame asks a pointed question to those sharp enough to hear: Was Dec. 4, 1956 really an evening of rock apotheosis? Or, to borrow the phrase from Hunter Thompson, was it just the night a great wave crested—and then fell back?
But then it strikes us that this deliberately broken pavement is supposed to reflect upon other break-ups: those already accomplished and those brewing behind the scenes in this world.
By the night of this concert, Elvis had already left the building: Phillips sold his contract to RCA in November 1955. In 1957, Cash would leave Sun for Columbia Records, and Perkins would follow the year after. Lewis’ promising career would implode in a sex scandal during a British tour in 1958. In short, Sun’s contribution to the world of music would never be greater than this moment.
When Elvis seeks counsel from his old mentor, we’re left to ponder what his subsequent career might have been had Phillips joined him at RCA, and countered the artistically crippling self-interests of “Colonel” Tom Parker. Having asked these nascent singers to search their souls and “sing to me like you’d sing to Jesus,” as he puts it in one scene, Phillips could have provided a corrective to the more deadening influences of what would become the “Nashville sound.” In that world, a one-night supergroup—arguably the first in popular music—could have lasted longer than one night.
Quartet’s script plays up the rivalries between Perkins and Presley, and lets us glimpse at the sparring among its ego-driven subjects. Actor Robert Britton Lyons gives Carl Perkins a gratifying edge. Martin Kaye conveys the carbonation of Jerry Lee Lewis, but doesn’t believably navigate that character’s conflicts about playing what he believes is “the Devil’s music.” David Elkins finds the gravitas needed to play a pensive Johnny Cash, and Cody Slaughter displays the moves for a convincing take on Elvis.
Upright bassist Corey Kaiser and drummer Billy Shaffer keeps things ticking on a broad range of classics, while Kelly Lamont sells an early torch number and a later raver, as a (historically inaccurate) female contributor to this night of nights.
In their midst, a likeable, down-home Vince Nappo gives Sam Phillips a coastal accent as broad and flat as the cotton fields the character’s family tended in Alabama.
A flashy last-act scene change depicts the quartet after each has achieved their stardom. The concert brings the show to a rocking end. But it doesn’t entirely dislodge the nagging specter of what might have been. It’s striking when a show with this much vital music remains haunted by the songs this quartet never made.