Thinking about the Tony nominations for best book of a musical, after I’ve been seeing Broadway shows all week, is what you might call a mind-blowing experience. Night after night we’ve seen musicals in which the story-telling is completely inept. Sometimes it seems as if there’s no book at all.
Which would be fine, I suppose, if you were putting together a tribute-band show to celebrate the ‘50s rockabilly of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. But if you’re going to create a production called Million Dollar Quartet and call it musical theater, you need to do some writing.
That hasn’t happened in Million Dollar Quartet (a Tony nominee, yes, for best book of a musical, and also for best musical, which tells you something about the current season), a show that consists of a bunch of snippets of great songs from 1956 sung by four guys who look a little and sound a lot like the four singers in question. Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster, from Little Shop of Horrors and Urinetown) is around to provide running commentary about the meet-up of the four guys, which apparently happened one night only, after Elvis had left Sun and Cash and Perkins were about to bolt. But the commentary is woven so poorly into the songs, the songs cut off so oddly and the characters given such short shrift that you get very little sense of these guys – and even less of what their music meant.
There’s great, rousing music, to be sure – some of the biggest hits of all four musicians, and some ensemble numbers, like the traditional “Down by the Riverside,” that shake you in your shoes. I loved hearing Levi Kreis, as Lewis, pound the hell out of his piano, and I loved listening to Lance Guest, as Cash, sing. Elizabeth Stanley (Company) has a warm presence as Elvis’s current girlfriend, although it’s not really clear why she’s there.
But only Kreis is able to find much personality in the rambunctious Lewis; the others all sort of fade into the background, and there’s absolutely no momentum, no drive. When Eddie Clendening’s rather wan Elvis toasts Phillips with, “Here’s to the father of rock ‘n’ roll,” the audience applauds as if it thinks it must. But it’s not applauding Phillips, and it’s not applauding Million Dollar Quartet. The applause is just for rock ‘n’ roll.