Million Dollar Quartet
At the Apollo Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“Million Dollar Quartet” rocks on. The show just celebrated its first anniversary and is selling tickets at the Apollo Theatre through the end of March. A production opens in New York City next spring and in comments at a post-show party on anniversary night a producer hinted at plans to open in other cities. To paraphrase Jerry Lee Lewis, there’s a whole lot of audience acceptance going on.
“Million Dollar Quartet” took off like a rocket from its stomping opening night at the Goodman Theatre last year, and why not? Who could resist Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash performing on the same stage? The show is part rock concert and part documentary about the early days of rock. The hook is an actual gathering on Dec. 4, 1956, of the great foursome in the grungy Sun Records recording studio in Memphis, Sam Phillips owner and operator.
The cast has remained the same through its first year run, with the exception of Tim Decker taking over as Sam Phillips. But the irreplaceable impersonators are all in place--Levi Kreis as Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Clendening as Elvis, Rob Lyons as Carl Perkins, and Lance Guest as Johnny Cash. Bill Shaffer (drums) and Chuck Zayas (bass) remain on hand as the rhythm section and occasional participants. Kelly Lamont still provides the eye candy as Elvis’s girl friend and a decent singer on her own in “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.”
The production has been tweaked over its run. On opening night Clendening’s Elvis was so low keyed that he practically disappeared, especially in competition with the more vivid personalities of the other three singers. Clendening now makes Elvis a much more dramatic and musical presence and the show is the better for it. Decker likewise expands Phillips’s presence as our guide through the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. The book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux is sturdier, more cohesive, and more informative instead of the shaky superstructure for the songs it was on opening night.
But overall co-directors Mutrux and Eric Schaeffer wisely
haven’t fixed anything that wasn’t broken. The music still carries the evening,
those 1950’s anthems that elevated rock ‘n’ roll to the music of our time.
Kreis is still the scene stealer as the irrepressible Jerry Lee Lewis, with all the great rocker’s vocal and piano moves and brash personality. Lance Guest has Johnny Cash’s look and sound down so pat it’s uncanny. Lyons still makes Carl Perkins the most dramatic character in the show, an embittered man with a stalled career as a one-hit wonder with “Blue Suede Shoes.” The show does an interesting take on Elvis, who yearns to return to the comfort zone of Sun Records away from the celebrity life inflicted on him by his hit RCA recordings.
I left the Apollo Theatre once again marveling at how four primitives from dirt-poor Southern backgrounds could revolutionize American music and pop culture. Phillips was their catalyst and mentor, a man who ultimately felt betrayed when his protégés drifted off to more lucrative recording contracts with bigger companies.
There is some interesting narrative in “Million Dollar Quartet” but the bottom line always is the songs. Any show with a play list of rock anthems like this has got to celebrate many more anniversaries—“Blue Suede Shoes,” “That’s All Right,” “Long Tall Sally,” “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” “See You Later, Alligator,” and “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” among others.
The show ends on a poignant note when an informal photo from the actual December 4, 1956, session is flashed on two screens, a group portrait of young men in their early 20’s who will change the world.
“Million Dollar Quartet” runs through March 28 at the Apollo Theatre, 2540 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m., with special holiday schedules for the Thanksgiving and Christmas-New Year weeks. Tickets are $25 to $70. Call 773 935 6100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.
The show still gets a rating of four stars. November 2009Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Million Dollar Quartet
At the Apollo Theatre
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—“Million Dollar Quartet” has transferred from the Goodman Theatre downtown to the Apollo Theatre in the near north side without missing a beat, literally. It remains a dream of a rock ‘n’ roll show from the opening “Blue Suede Shoes” to the tearing down the house finale “Whole Lotta Shakin’.” In between there are almost 90 minutes of terrific performances, nostalgia, fascinating inside information about the early years of rock, and music, music, music.
“Million Dollar Quartet” recreates an informal summit meeting the evening of Dec. 4, 1956, of four founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll—Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. The site is the grungy recording studio of Sun Records in Memphis, presided over by record producer Sam Phillips, the patriarch of early rock.
The foursome actually did gather at the Sun studio that night and a sketchy recording and a single photograph survive to mark the occasion. “Million Dollar Quartet” expands on the occasion to deliver a concert of about two dozen numbers, mostly rock but also gospel, country, and even a bit of 1950’s pop.
Phillips is the show’s narrator and also a central character. He tells the audience the history of Sun Records and how he molded a bunch of primitive Deep South young men into the first generation of rock superstars. There is a story of sorts, climaxing with Cash and Perkins telling Phillips they were leaving him for the greener financial and promotional pastures of Columbia Records.
As storylines go for jukebox musicals, the book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux holds the stage well. The personalities of the four stars are realistically defined, especially the brash Jerry Lee Lewis and the angry Carl Perkins, resentful that his career has descended to his single hit “Blue Suede Shoes,” and even that appropriated in the public mind by Elvis.
“Million Dollar Quartet” could probably ride on the coattails of those glorious early rock songs, but the producers have cast the show with a trio of stunning performances. Levi Kreis looks like Jerry Lee Lewis and sings with the exuberance and bravado that could make him a stand-in for the Louisiana rocker. Lance Guest remains uncanny in his rendering of Johnny Cash, in manner, look, and sound. Guest doesn’t impersonate Cash so much as re-create him.
Carl Perkins will be the least familiar personality to most audiences and Rob Lyons does a fine job of rendering the man’s sense of grievance as well as his frustration that his career may be over after one hit song. Plus Lyons is a fantastic guitar player (all four performers are masters of their instruments).
I still haven’t adjusted to Eddie Clendening’s subdued Elvis. The actor portrays Elvis as a young man overwhelmed by fame and fortune who longs to return to the musical purity of his days with Sun Records. It’s an interesting take on what could have been a flamboyant caricature, but Clendening operates on such a low energy flame that one feels the audience is getting short changed on the real Elvis of the 1950’s.
Brian McCaskill remains the glue of the story as Sam Phillips, an entertaining guide as well as a passionate participant in the action. I enjoyed Kelly Lamont more at the Apollo than at Goodman. She enters the stage as Elvis’s nightclub singer girl friend and does a nice job performing “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’.” But in the first show she mostly seemed like eye candy to add variety to the testosterone-dominated performances by the four rockers. At the Apollo she seemed more integrated into the story, which may just be my altered perception of her role. And she is still great eye candy.
The other performers are bass player Jay Perkins and drummer Billy Shaffer, a great rock rhythm section and decent actors when called up to speak some lines.
The opening night audience at the Apollo was heavily populated by spectators nearing or at senior citizen status. Rock is conventionally considered music for young people but the aging customers on opening night were cheering and clapping to the songs they grew up with. Hopefully the show’s demographics will extend to the younger generations of patrons. “Million Dollar Quartet” has no boundaries as an entertainment dynamo.
Mutrux and Eric Schaeffer directed the production. Adam Koch designed the recording studio set, Caryn Klein the costumes, Keith Parham the lighting, and Kai Harada the sound. Chuck Mead is credited with the musician arrangements and supervision.
“Million Dollar Quartet” runs through January 4 at the Apollo Theatre, 2540 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $49.50. Call 773 935 6100 or visit www.milliondollarquartetlive.com.
The show gets a rating of four stars Nov. 2008.
Contact Dan at email@example.com.