Elvis left the building for good in 1977, Carl Perkins in 1998 and Johnny Cash in 2003. Among the “Million Dollar Quartet,” only Jerry Lee Lewis, 82, survives.
The promising premise of the 2010 Broadway musical, making its Long Island debut at Gateway Playhouse, is to make the audience a time-traveling fly on the wall for the legendary Dec. 4, 1956, jam session at Sun Records in Memphis, where producer Sam Phillips discovered — and lost — four rock-and-roll pioneers.
For one night only, the Kings of Rock, Rockabilly and Country Crossover gathered for an impromptu reunion, joined by an upstart who’d become rock’s first bona fide wild man. That’s as good an excuse as any for a jukebox musical. Forget what they actually played.
Perkins, strummed by James Barry with a fierce guitar-pickin’ chip on his shoulder, brings his smokin’ backup players along for a recording of his long-awaited follow-up to “Blue Suede Shoes,” which Elvis had since appropriated. To round out the session, Phillips invited a pianist he just signed. That would be Jerry Lee (“Great Balls of Fire”) Lewis, played with impudent dexterity by Dominique Scott, doubling as the show’s music director. As Phillips, Jason Loughlin acquits his necessary annotative role — many in the audience never shared the planet with Elvis — with sympathetic aplomb. We feel for him and the troubled stars he nurtured.
The most recognizable figures (though Scott’s Jerry Lee is hard to miss, clamoring atop the upright to pound its keyboard behind his back) are Chris Damiano (Cash) and Ari McKay Wilford (Presley). In a way, theirs are the easiest portrayals, in that Perkins was a far less visible icon.
But what makes “Million Dollar Quartet” more authentic than, say, “Jersey Boys” is that musicianship trumps superficial impersonations. Sure, as directed by Hunter Foster, who played Sam Phillips on Broadway, Wilford can swivel his hips and pout like the young Elvis some of us remember. But he also plays bad-boy rock on “Hound Dog” or choirboy gospel on “Peace in the Valley.” Damiano’s Cash growls as low as Johnny ever did on “Sixteen Tons.” Bligh Voth as Elvis’ then-current squeeze adds heat to a window-dressing role, torching “Fever.”
Derek McLane’s “Million Dollar” set, with all its acoustic accoutrements, resembles a barless (except for beer and scotch) padded cell. And the sound that emanates from the stage takes you back to when rock and roll was born.