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Million Dollar Quartet


“Million Dollar Quartet” is probably the greatest jukebox musical in modern American musical theater, and it should be. How can you go wrong building a show on the songs of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins?

But the “Quartet” revival at the Marriott Theatre raises the excellence bar by wrapping the can’t-miss score in a strong book that allows the performers to bring a fascinating group of characters to life. They were unlettered young men who emerged from the hard scrabble South in the 1950’s to changed American, and then world, culture forever with a new music called rock ‘n’ roll (really a blend of rock, African American rhythm and blues, gospel, and country).

The Chicagoland theater scene has been awash in long running productions of “Quartet” since the show had its local premiere at the Goodman Theatre in 2008 and then transferred to the Apollo Theatre, where it ran for years. So thousands of theatergoers have previously been exposed to “Quartet,” but even veteran fans of the show will delight in the superior revival now at the Marriott Theatre. Judging by the rapturous reception the production received on opening night, it may be tough for the theater to end the run on its scheduled March 16 closing date. To borrow from the title of one of the hit songs, there is going to be a whole lot of people who want to see this show.

“Quartet” is built on a real event, the gathering of Presley, Lewis, Perkins, and Cash in the recording studio of Sun Records, proprietor Sam Phillips, on the evening of Dec. 4, 1956. Phillips was a Southerner who saw the possibilities of inserting black music into the dominant white pop music of the day. He needed a white performer to make the breakthrough, the racial divides of the time disapproving of mixing black styles into the dominant white sound. In Elvis Presley, Phillips found his breakthrough artist. Elvis and his girlfriend Dyanne visit the Sun studio that fateful night, and joined by Cash, Lewis, and Perkins, they reminisce and eventually separate over Cash and Presley telling Phillips they are leaving Sun Records for a more lucrative deal with Columbia records. But ultimately, the singers turn the gathering into a joyous jam session.

“Quartet” runs about 100 minutes without an intermission, filling the time with an irresistible impromptu concert of more than 20 anthems associated with the four stars. Highlights include Cash singing “I Walk the Line,” Elvis doing “Hound Dog,” Lewis electrifying the audience with “Great Balls of Fire,” and Perkins (the most interesting figure in the show), stomping through his single hit, the uber classic “Blue Suede Shoes.”

A couple of factors elevate the Marriott staging above other worthy versions. The theater operates on an in-the-round stage, allowing the performers to connect more closely with the audience. There isn’t much physical action, with the ensemble performing in front of microphones on four corners of the performing space when they don’t gather as a group. The staging, nicely orchestrated by Jamie Moye in an impressive Marriott directorial debut, sustains the sense of intimacy heightened by the high energy of the music.

The show requires four young men who must excel as instrumentalists as well as actors and singers. There is no fake strumming by the actors covered by an offstage pit band. That’s really the guitar playing of Christopher Essex (Cash), Rustin Cole Sailors (Elvis), and Shaun Whitley (Perkins) as well as the stratospheric piano work by Nat Zegree (Lewis). They are accompanied by the on stage rhythm section of Zach Lentino and Kieran McCabe on bass and drums.

“Quartet” would work well enough as a straight “and then they sang” presentation of greatest hits. But the few non singing roles give dramatic heft to the book. David Folsom is the strongest Sam Phillips I have ever seen, serving both as a character in the narrative and as the audience’s guide in recalling the early history of the music he helped shape. Even Lentino and McCabe project enough personality to raise their characters above anonymous rhythm section contributors.

I have never been enthusiastic about the injection of Dyanne into the story. She serves no narrative purpose and her two solo numbers are out of sync with the spirit of the rest of the music, “Fever” forever identified with Peggy Lee and “I Hear You Knocking” was popularized by Gale Storm, scarcely a meaningful figure in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. That said, Laura Savage boogies through several numbers with a captivating hip swinging zest And perhaps her two numbers are subtle reminders of how white performers of the day reaped the commercial riches from the music they usurped from more deserving black artists.

Among the quartet, the figure of Jerry Lee Lewis inevitably will be the audience favorite with his wild and wooly singing and piano playing and his sassy comedy. Zegree gives the role a full workout in the original Jerry Lee Lewis manner and the spectators ate him up. Essex and Sailors impersonate Cash and Presley well enough vocally, though there isn’t much physical resemblance.

My favorite character has always been Perkins, a man eaten up with bitterness because he became a one-hit wonder with “Blue Suede Shoes,” ironically popularized by Presley until Elvis was widely credited with being the hit’s author. Whitley fleshes out Perkins’s sense of grievance with real depth, and can he ever play a mean guitar!

Jeffrey Kmiec’s minimalist set gives the performers plenty of room to move around comfortably and informally. Theresa Ham (costumes), Jesse Klug (lighting), and Robert L. Gilmartin (sound) collectively establish the ambience of the time.

The first night audience obviously was ready to have a good time and the opening “Blue Suede Shoes” number got the rapport between spectators and performers off to a roaring start. The music has not aged in almost seven decades. It may have split the generations in the 1950’s but we can look back on the time as a classic era, not just nostalgically but musically. The Marriott revival has done its part to keep the music and the personalities fresh. At the end of the evening, the performers delivered a musical epilogue of four rock hits that had the audience standing and applauding. It was “Dancing Queen” rock ‘n’ roll style. You had to love it!