A million dollar evening’s worth

Nat Zegree, Shaun Whitley, Rustin Cole Sailors and Christopher J. Essex around the piano as in their characters' pose in the famed Million dollar Quartet photo
Nat Zegree, Shaun Whitley, Rustin Cole Sailors and Christopher J. Essex around the piano as in their characters’ pose in the famed Million dollar Quartet photo

4 stars

Going to Marriott Theatre for “Million Dollar Quartet” is like going to an amazing concert.

Some of the story-line is there on how and why future pianist extraordinaire Jerry Lee Lewis, the already famous Elvis Presley, the growingly popular Johnny Cash and the originator of “Blue Suede Shoes,” singer Carl Perkins, had all stopped by Sam Phillips’ Sun Records Memphis recording studio and service on the same December day in 1956.

But the reason to go to the show is to hear and see those four personalities come alive  during an extraordinary 90 plus minutes jamming of “I Walk the Line,” “That’s All Right (Mama),” Who Do You Love,” “Great Balls of Fire”  and their other hits.

The event, the only time these four future legendary entertainers were at the same place at the same moments, was captured by Phillips in a photo that would become famous. I saw it in the museum that is the Sun Records building in Memphis. The building is definitely worth a visit.

Phillips who became known as the “Father of Rock and Roll,” had recognized a future in syncing what was considered at the time to be “Negro” sounds and rhythms with other beats.

What the Marriott show doesn’t go into is the part radio personality Marion Keisker, a collaborator at Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service, played in bringing Elvis on board.

Originally conceived and directed by Floyd Mutrux with book by Colin Escott and Mutrux, the show is basically a jukebox musical. Premiered in Florida in 2006, it was produced in Chicago in 2008 first at Goodman Theatre and then moved to the Apollo Theater where it ran until fall 2014.

However, it does include short, spotlit, freeze points where Phillips interacts with each performer he developed while the other entertainers are in stop-action shadows.

It has Elvis accompanied by girlfriend Dyanne, portrayed with pizzazz by Laura Savage. She does a great “Fever” torch song during the jam session. As an aside, some stories about the event say he was accompanied by girlfriend Marilyn Evans.

From L. Laura Savage, Nat Zegree, Rustin Cole Sailors and Christopher J. Essex in Million Dollar Quartet at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire. (Photos by Liz Lauren)
From L. Laura Savage, Nat Zegree, Rustin Cole Sailors and Christopher J. Essex in Million Dollar Quartet at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire. (Photos by Liz Lauren)

What does matter is that the whole Marriott cast is terrific. Christopher J. Essex who has played the role elsewhere, really sounds like Johnny Cash. Rustin Cole Sailors who has been in several musicals on the West Coast does a fine Elvis impression. Shaun Whitley who reprises his Carl Perkins role during part of the Apollo Theater run has the perfect voice and plays a mean guitar.

But the person who usually makes this musical fun and exciting for me is the pianist portraying Jerry Lee Lewis. After more than 300 performances as Jerry Lee, as the famed entertainer is often called, Nat Zegree can not only play the piano with one hand, backwards, upside-down and certainly not sitting, but he can also do it blind-folded and does so during the encore.

Longtime actor David Folsom who has performed in shows from California to New York is a believable Sam Philips. Other important characters, although they are off to the side, are Zach Lentino reprising his role in the Apollo production as Jay Perkins, brother of Carl Perkins, on bass, and Kieran McCabe as drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland which he has also played in other “Million Dollar” productions.

I also liked the use of the usually darkened, glassed-in room where Marriott Theatre’s  musicians usually perform turned into Sun Records’ recording room.

Indeed, the entire staging was handled well. It felt as if we were all there at Sun Records.

So kudos to director James Moye, music director Ryan T. Nelson, set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec, sound designer  Robert E. Gilmartin and lighting designer Jesse Klug.

On the nit-picking side of what is otherwise a great show, I found the constant lighting up of cigarettes to be a distraction even though smoking was very popular mid last century. I also thought there were too many dead spots mixed in with Zegree’s rant about devil music. The other characters looked as though they were supposed to say something but didn’t and those time lapses were too long.

But the Marriott production is good enough to see more than once and share with friends.

DETAILS:  “Million Dollar Quartet” is at Marriott Theatre, Ten Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL through March 16, 2019. Running time: approximately 100 min. no intermission. For tickets and other information call (847) 634-0200 and visit Marriott Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

 

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