Theater Review: “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Kennedy Center

A musical tribute to some of the pioneers of rock-and-roll.

By: Gwendolyn Purdom

Decades before leagues of barstool fans started tabulating scores on their smartphones, one man drafted the ultimate fantasy team. But these were titans of sound, not sport. The man was Sam Phillips of Sun Records, and his 1956 gathering of rock-and-roll pioneers Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley for one now-legendary jam session is the inspiration behind the Tony-winning Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, now playing at the Kennedy Center.

Part of a national tour, the production, directed by Eric Schaeffer, is more like an exceptionally lively concert than a traditional musical. Strained relationships and true-to-life backstories and flashbacks are woven throughout, but they appropriately serve as set breaks for a long playlist of familiar chart toppers, from “Hound Dog” to “Great Balls of Fire”—allowing the audience members to fancy themselves among the luckiest flies on the wall of American musical history.

Unlike other Broadway crowd-pleasers of the “musical formed around a preexisting nostalgic soundtrack” ilk (Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, etc.), Quartet sets itself apart by forgoing the orchestra pit for actors who are playing their own instruments—and in this case, playing their own instruments really, really well. Though his character is arguably the least recognizable of the four musicians all these years later, Robert Britton Lyons as Carl Perkins, the rockabilly icon who originally wrote and recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” before Elvis made it a hit, strums a mean guitar. David Elkins dutifully provides the rumbling bass vocals required of the Man in Black playing Johnny Cash. As Elvis, a properly snarl-lipped Cody Slaughter occasionally comes off as impersonating the King rather than embodying him, but his expressive singing and distinctly Elvis-like gyrations are more than redeeming.

Most impressive is Martin Kaye. Hammering at the piano with near-Olympic agility and fervor (he stops just short of tap dancing on the keys), Kaye’s Jerry Lee Lewis is jaw-dropping, pushing his instrument to its full potential and then some—his performance is the toe-tapping heartbeat that keeps the production so vibrantly animated. Plus he just makes it look fun. The music the four make together is especially absorbing, taking turns on riffs or blending their voices in rich a cappella harmonies. Even the gangly, unassuming duo on bass and drums, Corey Kaiser and Billy Shaffer, respectively, emanate a cool soulfulness from their background post in the recording studio where the session is set.

The problem with basing a musical on an actual event (the union occurred at Memphis-based Sun Studios December 4, 1956, the first and only time Sam Phillips’s four protégés performed and recorded together), is that the action is tethered to some degree to historical details, not necessarily compelling plot points. A few sultry songs by a love interest of Elvis’s (a striking Kelly Lamont), while entertaining, feel slightly out of place, but she was there that fateful night, so she makes the cut. Vince Nappo’s Sam Phillips makes a fine narrator, but the tightly packed, sing-along-friendly soundtrack doesn’t allow much chance to get to know him.

You don’t have to be acquainted with their biographies or even be a long-time fan of their music (an energetic mix of gospel, country, R&B, and rock) to appreciate this show and the lasting impact these men had on American culture. The unlikely coming together of such talented artists in one place is what made the real “Million Dollar Quartet” (so dubbed by a newspaper article at the time about the get-together) so noteworthy. With this show comes another formidable union of performers and musical collaboration, but this time we’re all invited into the intimate studio, too.

Million Dollar Quartet plays at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through January 6. The show is performed without an intermission. Tickets (starting at $55) are available through the KenCen’s website.