There are two kinds of jukebox musicals in the world.
In one type, the songs originally performed by an established musical act are incorporated into that person or group’s biography. Examples of these highly marketable, live docudramas include Jersey Boys and the upcoming Pittsburgh CLO production, On Your Feet!. The second is the jukebox musical that channels the spirit of the artist(s) whose songs it repurposes to fit a completely original and/or zany narrative. Examples of these highly marketable, unabashed spectacles include Rock of Ages and recently closed Pittsburgh CLO production, Mamma Mia!.
Pittsburgh CLO’s current production, Million Dollar Quartet, is the best of both worlds: captivating and dazzling. It doesn’t transition as smoothly into a sing-a-long encore or succeed fully at humanizing its subjects as other jukebox musicals do, but this production is remarkable because of the inhuman talents of its multi-hyphenate ensemble,
Before I get to them, though, I have to call out the stars whose names appear above the title: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Originally conceived and directed by Floyd Mutrux and co-written by Mutrux and Colin Escott, Million Dollar Quartet is a living time capsule of the fateful night of December 4, 1956 when those icons played together at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. The man who brought them all there that cold evening, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, is also responsible for kick starting each of their illustrious careers and narrating this show.
Quartet opens with a thrilling rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” and, to my surprise, the two hours that follow feature real stakes, genuine conflict, and solid laughs.
Phillips must decide by the end of the day whether he wants to fold his independent record label into the juggernaut label RCA. If he does, he’ll get the chance to collaborate with Elvis again after selling Presley’s contract to RCA to save Sun from financial ruin, but he also risks losing the authority to take the creative risks that put him and his artists on the map. He teases the presence of Presley to coax the other members of the quartet to participate in the impromptu jam session.
One by one, the men and Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne (Zurin Villanueva, too skilled a vocalist for this show not to be titled Million Dollar Quintet) trickle in—their swaggering approaches to the studio and live musical exploits inside it are framed by Derek McLane’s intimately detailed set. Up and coming pianist and showman Lewis spars with bitter guitarist Perkins about the prospects of launching/relaunching their careers. Presley laments his status as an in-demand musician being forced to cross over into the film industry while Cash positions himself to take his music to the next level.
Whenever the going gets too tough, they break into another rip roaring standard of that era including everything from “Folsom Prison Blues” to “Hound Dog” to “See You Later, Alligator”.
Christopher Ryan Grant prevents the clunky flashback scenes sprinkled throughout the show from stopping it cold. His Sam Phillips is a complex portrait of a person trying to survive in the recording business, blending the sharpness of a shrewd business man and the sensitivity of an earnest music lover.
Phillips’s cavalcade of stars is portrayed by another cavalcade of stars who shoot past cartoonish imitation and land on an uncanny embodiment of the quartet that can only be explained by reincarnation.
Martin Kaye may not have taken home a Tony Award for his performance as Jerry Lee Lewis, like original star Levi Kreis did, but it’s clear that Kaye has played this part around the world for over five years because there are few people on the planet who can do what he does. He is a lightning rod of energy with great balls of fire coming out his fingers and smoke coming out of his ears. James Snyder has proven his abilities as a professional dreamboat and hip swiveler in Broadway shows like Cry-Baby and If/Then, but it’s still jaw dropping to witness how effortlessly he harnesses Elvis Presley’s virility and charisma into every move he makes.
As Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins respectively, Derek Keeling and Billy Finn’s musicality shines through in their subtle renderings of the quartet’s least flashy members. Keeling’s low notes pierce through your soul even as they rumble the floor beneath you. The palpable passion in Finn’s rockabilly crooning reveal his desperation to reclaim his former glory
I credit director David Ruttura and musical director James Cunningham in equal measure for putting together a musical that I went into having no intentions on enjoying. I now have to admit that it was just about pitch perfect in every way.
I am living proof that you don’t need to know every lyric to these songs or every detail about these people’s lives to get the most out of this snapshot of rock ‘n’ roll history. You only need to marvel at how history always finds a way of repeating itself.
Million Dollar Quartet runs at the Benedum Center through August 13, for tickets and more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.