BOSTON – We all know a million dollars doesn’t get you as much as it used to. It’s disappointing, though, to see how much the “Million Dollar Quartet” has been devalued between its Broadway debut and its Broadway in Boston opening at the Colonial Theatre (through Oct. 20).
The musical is loosely based on a 1956 recording session where Elvis Presley returned to the Sun Records studio from RCA and jammed with the studio’s three stars, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. They only played two of their hits, Presley’s “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” in which Elvis impersonated Jackie Wilson imitating him (very funny). The rest was a collection of gospel, country, and R&B.
“Million Dollar Quartet” doesn’t try to re-create the session but uses it to tell the moment-in-time story of Sam Phillips and Sun Records. Vince Nappo as Phillips narrates how he sold Presley to RCA to finance Sun, only to see Cash defect to Columbia. At this jam session they do play their hits: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom River Blues,” “Hound Dog,” “Great Balls of Fire,” etc.
And that’s fine. The issue isn’t what they sing but how they sing it, which is with considerably less style and charisma than in the Broadway show. Ironically, Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash is by far the best of the cast, ironic because Cash is kind of a no-show on the original recording. There’s still some conjecture about that — whether Cash left after the iconic photo but before the jam session, whether he was inebriated, or whether he was too far from the microphone.
It’s only when Moreau is singing into the mic that you feel the sense of occasion here. The rest of the voices and performances are weak. Book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux focused on an exaggerated tension between Perkins, frustrated that his career wasn’t going anywhere, and Lewis, bolstered by the self-confidence that would carry him to the top of the charts.
But John Countryman makes Lewis look inane, his boogie-woogie piano is basic, and he’s not a strong singer. (Levi Kreis, by contrast, tore the house down in New York and won a Tony.) There's no video of the Boston company, but here's the superior Broadway cast on the Tonys. Kreis as Jerry Lee ends the medley.
For some reason James Barry is given an Eddie Munster look and that’s the least of his problems. His guitar and voice lack all the sweetness of Carl Perkins’ delivery. Barry’s guitar work is more Jimmy Page than George Harrison, who was heavily influenced by Perkins.
Tyler Hunter is a decent Elvis impersonator but his voice isn’t distinctive and neither is that of Kelly Lamont, who plays his girlfriend and sings a few numbers.
The Boston audience was appreciative, but “Million Dollar Quartet” doesn’t escape the jukebox musical genre that the original production so joyfully rose above.
This program aired on October 11, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.