At Westchester Broadway, Suede Shoes and Prison Blues

Published: Tuesday, August 9, 2016 By: David DeWitt Source: The New York Times

Silence makes for one of the best moments in “Million Dollar Quartet,” the jukebox musical now cranking out the entertainment at Westchester Broadway Theater in Elmsford.

That moment, after a good hour-plus of 1950s tunes come to high-volume life, occurs when Johnny Cash (Sky Seals) reveals that he has signed a contract with Columbia Records, secretly agreeing to abandon Sam Phillips(Jason Loughlin), the Sun Records founder, who discovered and nurtured him.

Silent tension. Tension filled with anger, regret, dignity, hurt and the high-stakes feeling of a line crossed.

The moment is smartly against the grain of most of “Million Dollar Quartet,” a good-time fun machine existing to have actor-singer-musicians play Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, who got their starts on Phillips’s small label in Memphis. Including a couple of reprises and some short takes, this musical, by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, features 24 songs, among them “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Hound Dog.” It also explores the Dec. 4, 1956, confluence that put Cash, Presley, Perkins and Lewis in the same studio at the same time.

The day of that Million Dollar Quartet, as a newspaper called them, has become a “Rashomon”-style event of early rock history. (It is now inspiring a television series, set to run this fall on CMT.) Memories of what happened vary, but what is known for sure is that the four — Cash and Perkins were 24, Presley and Lewis 21 — jammed together that day in the studio of their musical father figure, Phillips (only 33 himself).

In constructing “Million Dollar Quartet,” the creators added some events that happened other days (like Cash’s defection), and some that that never happened. That tale runs mostly through Phillips, and the youthful Mr. Loughlin carries it well, particularly given that he is pressed into an awkward expansion of his M.C. duties in this dinner-theater environment. (The musical is split into two acts with a 30-minute intermission, unfortunately.) He could carry himself with more age and slip more country into casually flavorful lines like, “Son, you are gonna make me lose my religion.” But his steady performance gives the show its heart.

The director, Hunter Foster (who played Phillips in the Broadway premiere), protects the story, but he has some tough obstacles in the production at Westchester Broadway. For one, he has to handle the theater’s large playing area and Derek McLane’s set seems meant for a smaller stage. (The set and costumes were leased from the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, where Mr. Foster also directed the show.) The seeming acres of empty space downstage become a nebulous outdoors, where characters smoke or travel at a clip too fast to match lines of dialogue. (Mr. Loughlin’s Fitbit stats must be impressive.)

That is not a small concern for “Million Dollar Quartet,” which is built on seeing these legends interact in informal, human ways. They are too far away from the audience for that to be communicated, and the loose, intimate camaraderie of a jam session is limited — though that is also because the actors have not quite jelled as a confident ensemble.

Which brings up another of Mr. Foster’s challenges. These actors have to play the music and sing it, and they have to play it and sing it like charismatic music titans who, aside from Perkins, have recognizable styles. And they have to act. The performers here excel at the music and serve the story, but their success is mixed if you are expecting impersonations. Better to accept that these are just solid suggestions of the men who inspired their roles; this is theater, not Las Vegas, and actors get to interpret.

Mr. Seals gives the most appealing performance, capturing Cash’s reverent demeanor as well as the Man in Black’s low notes. His acting is natural and his singing rich and clear. He never drops phrases from the microphones, as happens too often in the more raucous numbers, and he works with Cash’s guitar style, holding the instrument high and close to the chest. As the showboating Lewis, Dominique Scott pumps up the energy and plays standing up with flair and high skill, but his strutting take on the man becomes too foppishly cartoonish.

Less formed but musically committed performances come from Ari McKay Wilford, who blows out the moves as Presley, and John Michael Presney, who as Perkins — the least-known member of the quartet, but a rockabilly pioneer — has a nice scene with Mr. Seals’s Cash and Bligh Voth’s Dyanne, Presley’s girlfriend of the moment. Ms. Voth is pretty darn good; she sings with color and authority and brings an intelligent ease to the role.

The sound can get cacophonous in the louder numbers, but the general feel is joyful (the athletic bassist, Sam Weber, seems to bounce around the stage with energy), and the quieter, Presley-led gospel tunes have lovely harmonies. The show ends with a fantasy concert of encores, which is fitting: The historical Million Dollar Quartet has inspired many a fan’s fantasy, and fantasy is something that theater lives to fulfill.