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Rock 'n' roll energy redeems Broadway musical

Everyone knows the household names of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Many may know Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins as well. But who knew that on Dec. 4, 1956, the four rock ‘n’ roll stars came together under one roof at Sun Records to play music, making history?

Million Dollar Quartet, shown at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City, takes viewers into that night of music featuring the four individuals’ greatest hits.

When I walked into the theater, I noticed many seats were unsold, leaving the room only about two-thirds full. When the production began, I was impressed with the music. But once the dialogue started, my expectations began to fall.

The musical failed to present a clear conflict or series of events to drive any direction, although a slight plot was revealed through Sam Phillips (James Moye), who doubled as Sun Records owner and narrator. Between two songs, a squabble occurred between Johnny Cash (Lance Guest) and Carl Perkins (Erik Hayden) when they informed Sam that they had signed with Columbia Records. However, the conflict was rather unconvincing and short-lived.

Songs were performed between conversations, but did not cooperate with the discourse, which was quiet, bland and slow, nor relevant to the dialogue’s topic. In Mamma Mia!, Abba songs were arranged into a plot, while Million Dollar Quartet, in contrast, failed to incorporate the music in a cohesive way. Rather, the music served as a jumble of songs played at a rock concert.

Although the music was sporadic, it was the real star of the show. The actors jammed their ’50s tunes with spectacular energy, enthusing most listeners. The concert-style finish brought the audience to their feet as the band jumped, skid and laid on their instruments, while producing energetic sound and a fantastic, attention-grabbing, foot-tapping encore. The life in the music permeated into the audience.

The most captivating and animated role in the production was undoubtedly Jared Mason, as Jerry Lee Lewis. His piano skills were impressive and he always seemed to be smiling and dancing. Mason managed to maintain a burst of energy during the entire show and kept the crowd engaged and amused by his charm. He successfully portrayed the “goober” personality of his character.

Of those in the quartet, Guest most closely resembled his character, Johnny Cash. His voice and mannerisms were an uncanny match to Cash’s. However, Guest often appeared disinterested when he wasn’t performing, and failed to connect or engage the audience with his relatively bland personality.

As Elvis, Eddie Clendening proved a practiced and skilled guitarist, but his stage presence failed to parallel the enthusiasm in his musical energy. He brought little color into his character and seemed almost shy. At the end of the show, however, he pulled through as a star.

Hayden, as Carl Perkins, also demonstrated talent as a musician. He brought life into the old rock with his guitar, but not into his character on stage. At the end of the show, I failed to understand or learn more about Carl’s nature. He was quiet and timid on stage and allowed others to take the spotlight from him.

Each performer took turns singing with two other actors on the upright bass and drums. The music was live and unrecorded, which made the sound even better and more impressive. Once away from the microphone, however, the actors’ positioning was poor, as they stood with their backs to the audience or spoke from the back of the stage, behind other people.

Although the story line failed to impress me, the concert aspect of the production exceeded my expectations and made the play worth the money and time. The actors’ musicianship was remarkable, especially since they played and sung live. The whole experience of the play was much more casual than that of other performances. The crowd cheered and whistled between each song, similar to an actual concert, making the atmosphere more relaxed.

The musical left me humming and inspired to continue my night with cheesecake or an adventure through Times Square. The show infused me with energy as I left the theater with Million Dollar Quartet’s spectacular vitality.

Although I would not see the show again, I remember Million Dollar Quartet in a positive light, as its music saved the show from a lack of vigor, and presented entertainment in an otherwise lackluster production.

Million Dollar Quartet runs for 90 minutes with no intermission, and is currently playing on Broadway. For tickets and showtimes, visit Ticketmaster.

For more drama reviews, read the March 23 article, ‘Earnest’ cast achieves unrivaled performance.

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