HIGHLY RECOMMENDED Great Balls of Fire
Inspired by a true story, and under the splashy and spectacular direction of James Moye, a slice of rock and roll history has been brought to life in the Marriott Theatre’s brilliant 2019 season opener. This joyful and infectiously likable show will introduce a lot of great music to younger audiences, but it’ll be a fond trip down memory lane for many other theatergoers. It’s chock full of nearly two dozen popular rock and roll and country-western hits. Based on an actual, previously little-known event from the archives of recording history, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux created this little jukebox musical that has, since its 2006 Florida premier, taken on a whole life of its own.
The event depicted took place on the evening of December 4, 1956, at Memphis, Tennessee’s Sun Records, a tiny, two-person operation that recorded a surprising number of rock and roll hits. The studio was owned by pioneer producer, Sam Phillips. Based upon a famous photograph that he snapped the night Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis all happened to drop by his studio near the holidays, Phillips called this reunion of his four talented discoveries the Million Dollar Quartet.
Phillips is responsible for launching the careers of these gifted music legends, among many others. That night he learned that, after selling Elvis’ contract to bigger recording label, RCA, strictly to pay off his delinquent debts and keep his studio operating, the King is now interested in returning to Phillips’ care and guidance. After all, Sam Phillips was the man who originally discovered, encouraged and nurtured Presley’s signature rock and roll sound. That night, Sam was also disappointed to learn that both Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins were leaving his flock, having signed on with the higher-paying Columbia Records. Additionally, Phillips is just beginning to know his new, wildly talented, yet unpredictable discovery, Jerry Lee Lewis; and on this evening he also meets another gifted singer named Dyanne, who is Elvis’ current girlfriend. Throughout the evening’s jam session, music is played, feelings are expressed, drinks are tossed back and reconciliation evolves into a deeply caring camaraderie.
James Moye, who may be remembered for his performances at the Marriott in “Nine to Five” and “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat,” returns, this time as director. He’s created and guided an intimate, highly polished, Broadway quality show that presents some of the finest talent performing at the top of their game. In addition, Moye’s show is supported by a topnotch team of unseen theatrical artists, as well. This version of the legendary musical lives up to every expectation. It not only sizzles with musical excitement and overflows with old-fashioned humor, but, under Mr. Moye’s wise direction, it’s not afraid to show its heart.
The production is musically directed with care and precision by Ryan T. Nelson, featuring terrific performances by onstage musicians Zach Lentino on bass, as brother Jay Perkins, and Kieran McCabe on percussion, as Fluke. Every actor in this production is a dynamic, multitalented triple-threat and a member of Actors Equity. Each character, with the exception of Sam Phillips, is not only required to be a strong actor and singer, performing in the style of the legendary artist he portrays, but he must also master his character’s musical instruments of choice.
Shaun Whitley, has a resume that ranges from Chicago’s original Apollo Theater production of this show to performances at Chicago Shakespeare, Drury Lane Oakbrook, American Blues Theater and many other local venues. Whitley makes a strong, good-looking and likable Carl Perkins. His warm smile and relaxed vocal style is homey and comforting, but his superb skill on the electric guitar is dexterous and almost demonic. Whitley rocks the house with Perkins’ signature hit, “Blue Suede Shoes,” along with “Matchbox,” “Who Do You Love?” and, of course, “See You Later Alligator.”
Christopher J. Essex, as the legendary Man in Black, captures all of Johnny Cash’s gentle charm and macho gravitas. He’s the quintessential good ol’ boy and an accomplished singer. Mr. Essex also skillfully accompanies himself on acoustic guitar while easily hitting all his deep, baritone notes in classics like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Sixteen Tons” and “I Walk the Line.” But Mr. Essex’s most haunting performance is his eleventh hour performance of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” a song that evokes fond memories of growing up in front of the radio during the 1950’s.
As Elvis Presley, the undisputed King of Rock and Roll, Rustin Cole Sailors is simply sensational. His strong vocals, musical talent, handsome looks and loose-jointed physicality make him a natural to play this charismatic, iconic role. The actor/singer/musician has been seen in the leading role of Guy in “Once,” as well as the Pharaoh in “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.” His sexy smile and gyrating hips add just the right amount of spice to numbers like “Memories Are Made of This,” “That’s Alright, Mama” and, of course, “Hound Dog.” It’s clear to see why this young actor was cast in this memorable role.
This entire production is a well-balanced assemblage of appealing, truly gifted young performers. However, the standout of the evening is young Nat Zegree as Jerry Lee Lewis. His talent and energy are simply off the charts. When he sings, Mr. Zegree sounds exactly like the “Wild One.” As a pioneer of the rockabilly style of music, the young actor/singer/musician is the human equivalent of an energy drink. He bops and bounds all over the stage but is mostly connected to his keyboard. Zegree’s talent at the spinet piano is not only masterful and manic but his flexible, athletic prowess enable him to tickle the ivories forward, backward, upside down and every which way. Lovably brash, Mr. Zegree’s Jerry Lee Lewis not only accompanies everyone else, but he delights the audience with his own numbers, like “Great Balls of Fire” and, the show’s much-loved encore, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
As Elvis Presley’s talented and vivacious girlfriend, Chicago favorite Laura Savage more than holds her own on this testosterone-filled stage of performers. As she did in Chicago productions of “42nd Street,” “Cats” and “Pal Joey,” Ms. Savage once more dazzles vocally, especially with her sultry version of “Fever.” Later she lights up the stage with brassy, R&B classic,“I Hear You Knockin,” accompanied by Mr. Zegree’s Fats Domino-inspired piano triplets.
We’re introduced to this historic moment in time by skilled actor David Folsom as Sam Phillips. While he’s not a soloist, Folsom often contributes as a backup singer. But this dynamic actor is our tour guide and narrator for this musical. This is, after all, his story. Phillips is the character who keeps the evening moving at a comfortable, but spirited pace, introducing and providing little-known facts about his boys, while popping in and out of the story, at will. Previously seen on stages all over the country, Mr. Folsom (who bears a resemblance to the real Sam Phillips) makes an auspicious Marriott Theatre debut with this production.
Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s sparse scenic interpretation of Sun Records Studio in Memphis is both stylish and inventive. Since all the musicians and their instruments are onstage, he makes creative use of the theatre’s glassed-in orchestra pit. Kmiec turns this space into the recording control room, with actor and understudy, Doug Pawlik, on headset and spinning the dials. All around the arena stage are lounging areas, filled with appropriate set dressing and props by Sally Zack. Above the set hang LED screens that add a high-tech element to the scenic design. Talented Jesse Klug, who has lit other productions of this musical, infuses his typical brilliant artistry here with some surprises, including mobile concert lighting. Completing the look of this production are the period perfect costumes, created by Theresa Ham with appropriate hair and makeup designs, courtesy of Miguel A. Armstrong.
This musical marks a stupendous start to the new season at the Marriott Theatre. James Moye’s production is highly energetic, well-cast and professionally polished, with special attention to detail. It’s also a show with a history. Although it began elsewhere, the musical grew and took form in Chicago. Beginning at the Goodman Theatre in 2008, due to popular demand it transferred to the Apollo Theatre, where it broke all attendance records. When the musical opened on Broadway in 2010 it was nominated for three Tony Awards, winning for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. The show went on to play Off Broadway the following year, and then began a National Tour.
At the Marriott Theatre we have one more tribute to the musical’s intergenerational popularity and success, while reminding us of this company’s consistent theatrical artistry. As the entire talented cast reminds us: “Great Balls of Fire,” in Lincolnshire there’s a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On!”