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Million Dollar Quartet: Elvis Live (or Maybe Dead) on Broadway

I have a question for you. You’re not allowed to use Google, or call your lifeline. Either you know it or you don’t. Here it is:

What does Frankie Valli look like?

Think about it for a second.

Chances are, my good little theatre bunny of a certain age, you immediately thought of one of two things: A nondescript Italian guy in a red blazer, or John Lloyd Young. Without the wings. Hell, maybe even with the wings.

Now let me ask you another question.

What does Elvis Presley look like?

True, you listened to nothing but the OBCs of Evita and Side Show between the ages of 13 and 19, but you still have a pretty concrete idea of what Elvis looked like.

That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with Million Dollar Quartet.

You know what Elvis looks like. Elvis is Elvis, and Elvis is a legend. The guy standing on the stage in this odd little jukebox musical, which opens April 11 at the Nederlander Theatre, on the other hand, is not Elvis. He does not sing like Elvis. He does not look like Elvis, except for the cleft in his chin, which has been meticulously drawn on using an eyebrow pencil. And yet this crazy show asks you to believe that this guy is Elvis, that the guy standing next to him is Johnny Cash, and that both of them would be, on any given night, hanging out with Hunter Foster.

The show re-imagines one of the most storied happenings in rock and roll history—a night in 1956 on which Presley, Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all gathered at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee for a jam session. We see the jam session re-created in one swift act that lasts for about an hour and 45 minutes. If you paid the top ticket price, that’s $1.19 per minute of entertainment for this show. And trust me, there’s reason to be concerned with the math. (Note that American Idiot is a one-act with almost the exact same running time, but because that show would give you an aneurysm if it lasted even a moment longer, you’ll be grateful for its brevity.)

But back to Elvis. The problem with the show isn’t just that it feels really silly to watch a fake Elvis when the legend of the real Elvis looms so large. The problem is that even a fake Elvis comes with historical baggage. It’s obvious that the show’s creators have tried really hard to distinguish actor Eddie Clendening’s performance from a cheap Elvis impersonation, but the show can’t win with this. By giving us a “realistic,” human, unspangled Elvis, the performance just seems… not very much like Elvis. A show like Jersey Boys works because Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons made legendary music. Their lives and personalities were less well known, and conjured fewer audience expectations than Elvis ever could.

Levi Kreis’s Jerry Lee Lewis and Robert Britton Lyons’s Carl Perkins fare far better than Clandening’s Elvis or Lance Guest’s Johnny Cash for this very reason. Despite looking a lot like Harry Connick, Jr., Kreis is appropriately overblown as the loony Jerry Lee Lewis, and he has a great voice. Lyons is likewise affecting as Perkins—a poor sharecropper who learned how to play guitar from an African American field worker. Because I’m not enough of a hipster to know what the real Carl Perkins looked like, and because I just Googled him and Lyons is way cuter, I’m tempted to prefer the Million Dollar Quartet version of him to reality, or I’m at least content to let Lyons teach me about who this person was. The music suffers from this same wobbly authenticity crisis. He does what he can, but Clandening’s performance of “Hound Dog” feels like a chintzy cover of the original.

The show’s other problem is its plot, which feels like it was forced on the piece simply to qualify it as a Broadway show and not an impersonation concert. Sam Phillips acts as narrator, and Hunter Foster does what he can with all that exposition, but the details—Johnny Cash’s contract is up; RCA wants Phillips to come to New York with Elvis; Phillips sold Elvis’s contract to RCA—don’t amount to much in the end. In fact, I’m not sure how the show’s central plot point eventually resolves, or if it even did. Really, this is just an excuse to play some old rock and roll songs.

There are some other admirable things, though. All the actors onstage play their own instruments, and well, which does give the show a thundering, concert-like energy. This is especially useful because the last 20 minutes of the show are, in essence, a concert. Because it happens after the bows, I’m tempted to call this an Insufferable Singing Curtain Call—one of my least favorite theatrical “innovations”—but it’s admittedly satisfying. In it, we do finally see Elvis—and everyone else—in some tasteful spangles, and singing their most recognizable hits.

And when it’s through, there is a voice that comes over the PA and announces that Elvis has indeed left the building. But you sort of have to wonder if he was ever there to begin with.

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