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Chicago by John Olson

Million Dollar Quartet
Apollo Theater

Also see John's reviews of Young Frankenstein and Graceland Revisited

A Christmas Carol
Levi Kreis, Rob Lyons, Chuck Zayas, Lance Guest, Eddie Clendening
Around the occasion of this show's one-year anniversary of its run at Chicago's Apollo Theater, the producers gave themselves a nice little gift—the announcement that their show would open next Spring in Broadway's Nederlander Theatre. Comparisons to the megahit Jersey Boys are likely since the two shows both celebrate mid-20th century rock 'n' roll. Jersey Boys is of course the career story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons while Million Dollar Quartet replays the true events of a single Memphis night in which Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins unexpectedly jammed in a session originally scheduled to cut a recording for Perkins. The former is a full-scale staged musical of two and half hours, the latter a one-act of some 100 minutes that's heavier on music than stagecraft or book.

What the two shows have in common is their appeal to fans of their music, and Million Dollar Quartet delivers 21 songs of the era at full volume and with relentless energy. There is a plot concerning the relationships of the four to their producer and mentor, Sam Phillips of Sun Records. On the night of this session, December 4, 1956, Elvis has already gone on to record for RCA, though that label is trying to get Phillips to work for them and Presley. Phillips is more concerned with re-signing his contract with Johnny Cash, whose career has taken off and who has been ducking Phillips' calls. Perkins is in a bit of a career slump and resents the contributions and opinions of pianist Jerry Lee Lewis, whom Phillips has recently taken on and who is playing piano for Perkins' session. When Elvis calls up to ask if he can drop by, Phillips uses the occasion to get Cash to stop over.

The songs are delivered by a cast of singing actors and acting singers, and you have to refer to their bios to know which are which. Film and TV actor Lance Guest is Johnny Cash and, like the other three, he is made to bear a reasonable resemblance to the original. His Cash is exceedingly low-key and humble, and he growls out "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line," Sixteen Tons" and "Riders in the Sky" in a suitably Cash-like warble. Singer-guitarist Eddie Clendening as Elvis has an aw-shucks shyness about him that only evaporates when he's singing. Given that he can be compared not only to The King himself, but to multitudes of other Elvis impersonators, he should be especially commended for delivering a real person—the young Elvis we barely knew, back in the earliest days of his fame.

Cash and Presley are iconic—the other two members of the Quartet much less so, and accordingly, bookwriters Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux are able to create some meatier roles. As Carl Perkins, rock musician Rob Lyons is edgy, sexy, angry and brutal in the hillbilly jokes he makes at Lewis' expense. Another musician, Levi Kreis, has a blast playing a 20-year-old version of Jerry Lee Lewis. He's a hillbilly with a lot of life experience already, having been married twice (with the second one beginning before the first ended) and coming out of a family separated for a time from their convict father. ("My mama loves that song," Lewis tells Cash about "Folsom Prison Blues." It reminds her of my daddy.")

The central figure in all of this is Sam Phillips, though, who's played with a country-boy charm, but a coarseness all the same, by Tim Decker, the one new member of the cast since the show opened at the Apollo last year. Bookwriters Escott and Mutrux have given him a multi-layered character: powerful in his own limited sphere of a regional record producer, smart enough, but still at a disadvantage versus the corporate giants of RCA Victor and Columbia. His role in discovering and developing talent that redefined popular music is celebrated here and Decker does a great job of holding center stage in this story. Rounding out the principals is Kelly Lamont who plays Elvis' girlfriend of the time—here named Dyanne, but who since the show's origination has been identified as one Marilyn Evans, a Las Vegas showgirl Presley met while playing the New Frontier casino. She holds her own among the boys quite nicely and gets to sing a sultry take of "Fever," published in 1956 but popularized more widely by Peggy Lee in 1958, and "I Hear You Knockin'," a hit for Gale Storm in 1955 before a successful cover by Dave Edmunds in 1971. Chuck Zayas and Billy Shaffer backup the vocals on bass and drums, respectively.

Escott loosely based the musical on his book "Good Rockin' Tonight Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll," and Million Dollar Quartet makes a great lesson in rock 'n' roll history. It's not as impressive as drama—the conflict over the musicians' deals with Sun Records is not enough of a story and it's resolved way too cleanly at the end. Still, the point of this show is mostly the music and the authors may have already been trying too hard to give us drama through the premise that relationships were changed and issues resolved all in this one brief evening meeting.

Million Dollar Quartet makes for a fun evening, but you wonder if this piece, made for a small house seating hundreds, will be enough to meet Broadway expectations and seem right-sized for the 1,200 seat Nederlander in New York. Maybe Adam Koch's realistic set of the Sun Records recording studio will be expanded to fill the Broadway stage. Eric Schaeffer, who co-directed the piece with Mutrux, has had that challenge before, so we'll see what he comes up with. If Broadway's Memphis, another musical about the birth of rock 'n' roll in Tennessee's River City, is still running next Spring, the two musicals could make good companion pieces for a short course in the topic.

Million Dollar Quartet is in an open-ended run. Tickets are available through the Apollo Theater Box Office, 2540 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago, (773) 935-6100, or online through Ticketmaster, www.ticketmaster.com. Performances are Wednesdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m.


Photo: Paul Natkin

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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