'Million Dollar Quartet' at the Marriott: This jukebox favorite sounds great in the round
The cure for the wintertime blues is apparently “Million Dollar Quartet.” Two theaters in the Chicago area — Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire and Theatre at the Center in Munster, Ind. — are milking this exuberant Cash (and Lewis, Presley and Perkins) cow for audiences in need of a rocking mood enhancer during these gloomy days.
Marriott’s production, directed by New York-based director/actor James Moye, hits the frozen ground first. (Theatre at the Center opens its show just in time for Valentine’s Day next month.) Moye, along with several members of his cast, is a vet of the show — he played producer Sam Phillips on Broadway and off-Broadway. (“Million Dollar Quartet” first struck gold in Chicago back in 2008, when a limited commercial run at the Goodman transferred to the Apollo for eight years.)
Perhaps Moye’s own experience playing Phillips accounts for the fact that the legendary producer, whose ear for raw talent and wizardry for blending rhythm and blues and country into rock classics, seems more at the center of this story than in past productions I’ve seen. Or it may be that the Marriott’s in-the-round configuration just works well at putting him literally in the center of things. (Since the cast plays all the instruments, set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec transforms the theater’s glass-walled musicians’ nest into the recording booth for Sun Records.) Heck, Phillips is even played by David Folsom — surely a lucky name if you’re playing the man who discovered the Man in Black and recorded Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
If somehow you’ve missed the backstory, this jukebox musical, created by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, takes off from one night — December 4, 1956 — at Sun Studios when Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were all in the room where it happened. (Miguel Cervantes, star of the Chicago production of “Hamilton,” was in the audience at Marriott opening night.) Though there was indeed an all-star jam session at Sun that night, the show plays fast with the facts. The events that we see taking place in under two hours here actually transpired over 18 months, as Phillips’ biggest stars left him for greener pastures.
Elvis (Rustin Cole Sailors) is already a big star by the time he drops by with singing-and-hip-shaking girlfriend Dyanne (Laura Savage) en route to visit Mama Presley. But despite his snazzy black-and-white threads (designed by Theresa Ham), Elvis is stuck in a gray area, unhappy with the direction in which RCA Records (the label to whom the cash-poor Phillips sold Presley’s contract) is pushing him and unsure of why he’s pursuing Hollywood stardom. He’s also just had a disastrous run opening for comedian Shecky Greene in Las Vegas and tells Phillips “I’ll never play Vegas again.” (The show is studded with fan-service in-jokes, as when Cash tells Perkins “I’ve been everywhere, man.”)
Meantime, Cash (Christopher J. Essex) has to tell Phillips that he’s jumping ship for a bigger label, while rockabilly genius Perkins (Shaun Whitley), still bitter that Elvis got to premiere Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” on Ed Sullivan’s show, struggles to find another chart-topper, backed by Brother Jay (Zach Lentino), his real brother, and drummer Fluke (Kieran McCabe).
And then there’s Jerry Lee Lewis, the swaggering bantam rooster from Ferriday, Louisiana, and killer of the keyboards. He’s 21 years old, already married twice (and not yet to his child-bride cousin — the second underage cousin he’d marry), and on the cusp of greatness, as he never tires of telling the other three. In Nat Zegree’s near-manic performance, he’s both irresistible and dangerous. He’s also an irritating kid who can’t decide if he’s star-struck by the slightly older men around him, or if he wants to take them down a peg or two.
If Zegree’s Lewis is the uncontrollable id for this enterprise, then Folsom’s Phillips is the ego. Rightfully proud of the musical genre he’s helped birth, he’s also feeling pulled by moralists on one side who are aghast at all that shaking going on with rock music, and bigger fish invading his Memphis pond on the other. His anger at learning that Cash has come to say goodbye is palpable and affecting. Even his jovial holiday-time cheer feels a little forced. Folsom’s Phillips is a man who started a cultural wave and is beginning to wonder if he’s going to drown in its undertow.
An interlude where Cash, Lewis and Presley all share stories of dead siblings reminds us that these were men who came up poor and had already suffered big losses before they recorded a single note. One wishes that the influence of black artists on their music got bigger play. Short flashbacks show us the moments when Phillips discovered each of them, and Perkins credits “Uncle John,” an old black man who lived across the fields where Perkins’ family sharecropped, for teaching him the blues. (That was John Westbrook.) After the quartet tears up Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (recorded at Chicago’s Chess Records), they note that Berry was told he couldn’t release it under the title “Brown Skinned Handsome Man.”
But ultimately, this show isn’t about a history lesson. It’s a jukebox musical focused on illustrating the chemistry between four music giants and the man who jumpstarted their careers. Moye’s staging (which wisely dispenses with an intermission in order to keep the tension and energy flowing) finds that chemistry in quieter moments (“Down by the Riverside”) and in big, blast-off-the-roof musical numbers. The final post-curtain set, where each of the men performs a showy signature number while donning Ham’s sequin-bedecked jackets, might feel like a little too much of a good thing. But when it’s January in Chicago, warming yourself up with some “Great Balls of Fire” isn’t a bad idea at all.