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'Million Dollar Quartet' rocks in the round at Lincolnshire's Marriott


Just call "Million Dollar Quartet" the "little jukebox musical that could" -- especially in and around Chicago. Now making its Marriott Theatre debut in Lincolnshire, the musical has already extended its run due to audience demand.

But wowing the Windy City has been par for the course for "Million Dollar Quartet." Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux's script features only eight named characters, but it magnifies and mythologizes an actual December night in 1956 when rock 'n' roll legends Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley came together for an impromptu jam session at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.

Though "Million Dollar Quartet" had a 2006 debut in Florida and short runs in Washington in following years, it was the 2008 Chicago production (first at the Goodman Theatre and then at the Apollo Theatre) that truly became a long-running cash cow. The production ran for more than seven years and was the main launchpad for other iterations on Broadway in 2010, in London in 2011 and a North American tour that lasted more than four years.

Locally there was a wildly acclaimed Broadway-scale production at Aurora's Paramount Theatre last season. But at the Marriott, "Million Dollar Quartet" returns to its more intimate roots.

Marriott's in-the-round proximity on Jeffrey D. Kmiec's detailed recording studio set helps to highlight how these American music icons started out as diamond-in-the-rough country boys. The production also zeros in on Sun Records founder and producer Sam Phillips (a very confident David Folsom) as the heart and narrator of the show.

Phillips was the first to take a chance recording his future superstars, and he's understandably aggrieved when major labels RCA and Columbia swoop in to steal his talent.

"Million Dollar Quartet" flashes back and forth between this landmark night and past moments in the musicians' lives, which Jesse Klug's lighting design greatly helps to delineate. The storytelling framework allows for biographical details to be sketched while also leaving room to contemplate how luck and timing can propel -- or stall -- ambitious artists.

The rousing songs, however, remain the draw. "Million Dollar Quartet" requires most of its actors to double up as virtuosic singers and musicians, and Marriott's impressive, talented cast lives up to the challenge.

Nat Zegree makes for a "Real Wild Child" as the scrappy, fame-hungry Jerry Lee Lewis. He boggles the mind with his dexterity and flexibility, pounding the piano keys with arms, legs, feet and, even, his back end.

As the resentful Carl Perkins, Shaun Whitley provides a fine foil for Zegree's overconfident Lewis. Whitley also shows off great electric guitar picking.

Also impressive is the deep-voiced Christopher J. Essex, who exudes star power and guitar gravitas as the slightly aloof Johnny Cash...

...The rest of the cast is finely rounded out by Laura Savage as Elvis' fictionalized girlfriend Dyanne (who sings a sultry version of "Fever"), along with Zach Lentino as the bravura bassist Brother Jay and the solid drumming of Kieran McCabe as Fluke.

Chicago-area audiences clearly can't get enough of "Million Dollar Quartet." And Marriott obliges with top-notch rocking and rolling.