Fans of fifties rock and roll tend to love it not just reasonably but feverishly, and with good reason: To listen to the recordings made by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records is to hear the future being born, heralded by jangly guitars, the thump-thump of a stand-up bass, and a piano with the jittery nerves of a brand-new dad. Million Dollar Quartet, a show poised delicately at the halfway point between a musical and a revue, distills that revolutionary spirit and splashes it out as a dazzling, raucous spectacle. Written by music historian Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux (the latter of whom made the marvelous, and rarely seen, 1978 film American Hot Wax, loosely based on the story of the disgraced disc jockey Alan Freed), and directed by Eric Schaeffer, it’s an imagined account of the real-life day—December 4, 1956—on which Perkins, Cash, Lewis, and Elvis all happened to gather at Sun Records for an impromptu session.
Phillips, played by the affable Hunter Foster, narrates the events of the day, dropping hints at the rivalries, petty jealousies, and grudging respect and affection these men felt for one another. A sexy-sullen Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons) grumbles that Elvis (Eddie Clendening) has stolen his thunder by recording his songs and turning them into hits; at one point they and Lewis (his rapscallion randiness captured perfectly by Levi Kreis) look on with mischievous, whooping delight as Lance Guest’s Cash bangs out a rowdy version of “Folsom Prison Blues.”
The actors—all four of them crackerjack singers and musicians—distill the essence of their real-life counterparts without succumbing to excessive caricature. (You can’t play Elvis without the sneer and the perpetually twitchy leg, but Clendening goes blessedly easy on the thank-you-verrah-much Presleyisms.) The show adds an invented character, Dyanne (Elizabeth Stanley), a knockout in a curvy sheath dress who shimmies through a boiling-hot rendition of “Fever.” But its most glorious moment is the finale, when four spangled tuxedo jackets, in various vivid colors, descend from the heavens to be donned by each of these respective legends for one last set. Jerry Lee Lewis is the only one of these performers who is still living; for the rest, these sparkly coats are like gifts from the gods, special costuming for their perpetual hootenanny in the afterlife.