“Million Dollar Quartet” warms the Marriott Theatre with rock and roll

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member.

Million Dollar Quartet, now playing at Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre, tells the story of a magical night in 1956 when Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis all got together at Sun Records during a Perkins recording session and jammed for Sam Phillips, also known as the “father of rock and roll” for his discovery of these tremendous talents and his nurturing in them of a musical style more akin to what the black artists of the time were playing than the Dean Martins and Perry Comos who dominated the pop world. The musical is a wonderful, high-energy jam session punctuated by the fact that Presley had already gone to RCA and Cash and Perkins were about to go to Columbia, nearly emptying Phillips’ nest. With RCA scouting him too, the future of Sun Records seems in doubt. This provides some conflict to the thin plot of the show, but the focus is clearly on the music.

Director James Moye himself played Phillips in New York and knows this show inside and out. Here David Folsom plays the iconic producer who is hoping to extend Cash’s contract and secure his label’s continuance. He’s a sympathetic character, righteously angry when Cash tells him he’s leaving because, as he explains to Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne (Laura Savage), he gave his heart and soul to these guys, traveling the country by car, begging radio stations to play this new and unusual music…and now he seems to be about to become a historical footnote. Folsom (with that name he should have been playing Cash, whose “Folsom Prison Blues” is included in the show) delivers a nuanced, strong performance, helping us to see the importance of this man to modern culture.

But the night really belongs to the four musicians. Perkins is played by Shaun Whitley, whose guitar licks (all the music is played live by the performers) indeed remind one of the great man he is playing, the man who brought rockabilly to the mainstream and whose “Blue Suede Shoes” was a hit not only for him but also, of course, for Elvis. Perkins is concerned that he has not managed to find a follow-up hit, and he believes Phillips has lost faith in him, especially when he brings in a hotshot young pianist (Lewis, played by Nat Zegree) to work on this session. Whitley gives Perkins just the right amount of edge to create a multi-dimensional character instead of simply a rock icon, and his justifiable concerns form another subplot.

Zegree is all manic action as Lewis, the 21-year-old from Louisiana who is Phillips’ latest find and, as he is fond of reminding the others, the star of the future. And Zegree is indeed incredible as the singer of “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” playing his piano with unbridled skill whether he is sitting, standing, leaning over it, reaching behind to play it backwards, or any of about a dozen other tricks that Zegree controls. His bodily energy is even greater than Elvis (whose fabled legs are definitely dancing), and he cannot be calmed down. His cockiness might get to you, but credit Zegree with perhaps the best performance of the night and a virtuosity on the keyboard that you’ll long remember.

Elvis (Rustin Cole Sailors) has had his contract sold to RCA in order to pay off debt at Sun, and both he and Phillips regret not being able to work together anymore. (Elvis’ desire to work with his mentor is one major reason the bigger label is after Phillips.) By the time of this play’s action, Presley has hit it big in both the rock charts and in Hollywood, though he has flopped royally in Las Vegas. (“I’ll never play Vegas again,” he states flatly, to the audience’s amusement.) Opening there for comedian Shecky Greene, he found himself playing to crowds that didn’t “get” him and let him know. But he has already been on the Ed Sullivan Show (playing “Blue Suede Shoes” to Perkins’ chagrin) and is well on his way to superstardom.  Sailors low-keys his performance, keeping his Elvis as down to earth as possible, befitting not the King of Rock and Roll but the young, slightly overwhelmed man he was at the time.

Christopher J. Essex, as Cash, is easily the moral center of the play. Dressing in black (of course) and singing such classics as “I Walk the Line,” Essex gives Cash the kind of extreme gravitas that the singer himself commanded, and when divisiveness show up between his fellow musicians (especially the volatile Lewis and the frustrated Perkins), Essex uses Cash’s calming but authoritarian tones to settle things down, warning the younger man not to make enemies of those who have already been there. He lends the stage a much-needed calmness, especially compared to the extremity of Zegree’s Lewis.

Savage has much less to do as Elvis’s girlfriend, though she does get to sing a couple of numbers and has a beautiful voice, shining as she sings. Also sparkling are the session musicians, Brother Jay (Zach Lentino, playing Perkins’ actual brother) on bass and Fluke (Kieran McCabe) on drums. And all of this plays out on a Jeffrey D. Kmiec set that utilizes the space above the stage as the walls of Sun Studios (complete with the many gold records Phillips has already garnered) as well as what is usually the orchestra area at Marriott, which Kmiec has turned into a sound room for the recording studio. Wisely, Kmiec keeps the stage itself empty of all but instruments, giving the talented musicians ample room to move around and rock out.

Million Dollar Quartet is a very entertaining night at the theatre, and the Marriott, with its square stage surrounded by audience members, is an excellent venue to see (and hear) it. It’s easy to see why this show played for years at the Apollo, and now those who missed it (or just want to revisit it) have another chance. And it is well worth going out on a chilly night to be warmed by the pure rock and roll of these four young performers who made history, played by actor/musicians who are excellent in every way. You’re gonna love it.

Million Dollar Quartet is now playing at Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire until Mar 16. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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