Tuesday, December 01, 2015

4-Ever Legendary: 'Million Dollar Quartet' Still Money in the Bank -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Million Dollar Quartet
The Apollo Theater, Chicago
Thru January 17, 2016

Million Dollar Quartet, the jukebox musical that immortalizes the night 59 years ago this Friday--Dec. 4, 1956--when Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis jammed together at Memphis' Sun Studio, has been running at Chicago's Apollo Theater for 7+ years.

Following a brief run at the Goodman Theatre, where I first saw it in October 2008--not the World Premiere as I had thought, having had (per Wikipedia) prior runs in Florida and Washington state--MDQ opened at the Apollo on Halloween 2008 and, rather remarkably, has never left.

In the meantime, other productions have come (and mostly gone) on Broadway, in London, Las Vegas, on national tours and to international destinations.

Recently it was announced that the show co-written (with Colin Escott) and co-directed (with Eric Schaeffer) by Floyd Mutrux will end its Apollo residency on January 17, 2016.

Having really liked MDQ at the Goodman and again the next year at the Apollo, I felt like seeing it again in Chicago before it closed.

I imagined it would still be quite good, but couldn't help wonder if, in being on its last legs, there might be some erosion in the quality of the performers embodying the legendary foursome, as the original cast has (mostly) long since moved on.

After all, how many actors/musicians can look and sing like acceptable facsimiles of four iconic musical pioneers--while also playing their own instruments onstage?

Well, based on the current cast on display in Chicago, my answer would simply be: 


Memory doesn't serve well enough for direct comparison to the original cast, one of whom (Levi Kreis as Jerry Lee Lewis) would win a Tony Award, but no part of this quartet was anything less than superlative.

Brendan Bennett is royally good as an ersatz Elvis, Adam Lee replicates the rich vocal timbre of the original Man in Black, Shaun Whitley (blue) suede me into believing him a fine Carl Perkins and Colte Julian well-captures the roguish swagger of a young Jerry Lee Lewis while pounding on the piano keys with electrifying panache.

As Sam Phillips, the visionary Sun Records founder who signed and launched the four remarkable talents--and others--Andy Ahrens is also quite good.

And it was a joy to see Kelly Lamont back in Chicago as Dyanne--who arrives at the studio with Elvis and sings a couple songs of her own--a role she originated locally in 2008 and has performed (per the program) in over 125 cities in the U.S., Canada and Japan.

Accompanying the quartet--which performs throughout the 100-minute show in various configurations--and Dyanne onstage are a drummer named Fluke (Patrick Morrow) and Chuck Zayas playing the stand-up bass in the guise of Jay Perkins, Carl's brother.

The musical doesn't offer much in the way of a storyline, but it doesn't have to as the script echoes the once-in-history circumstances of the impromptu jam session among the four now-legends.

At the time, Philips had brought in his newest discovery, Lewis, then unknown outside Memphis, to play on a recording by Perkins, who had a big hit with "Blue Suede Shoes" but was struggling to create a second smash. Elvis, who by then had signed with RCA Victor, came by--indeed accompanied by a girlfriend--and Cash subsequently showed up as well.

Discussions and hurt feelings about new record deals form the bulk of whatever drama exists in Million Dollar Quartet, with Philips aiming to retain the talent he discovered and nurtured despite overtures from labels much larger than Sun. 

While the scenario of 12/4/56 didn't warrant much fictionalizing for entertainment purposes, the songs performed in the show don't hew exactly to what Mssrs. Presley, Cash, Lewis and Perkins played together that day, with far more familiar hits included onstage.

Even with a show already seen by millions, much of the fun for any new audience is to be delighted by classic songs like "Blue Suede Shoes," "Great Balls of Fire" and many more of that ilk, so although the tunes are listed in the show program, I won't reveal any others. But know that excepting several of Elvis' numerous hits and Cash's "Ring of Fire," most of the music one might expect is present and accounted for.

And well-performed.

As I expounded on in a recent review of a touring Mamma Mia, "jukebox" or "songbook" musicals featuring famous pre-existing songs tend to take (or combine) the following three forms: 1) Using the old songs to help tell an original story (as Mamma Mia does best); 2) Supporting a biography of the featured artist (Jersey Boys about the Four Seasons being the best example); or 3) Basically serving as a tribute concert, with rather minimal storytelling.

Though it does reveal a bit of background about its four superstars, Million Dollar Quartet is by-and-large a tribute concert.

And on theatrical technical merit, I judge it as a slightly lesser jukebox musical than Mamma Mia or Jersey Boys, though better than most others.

For simply as acutely enjoyable entertainment, MDQ is hard to beat. Audience members sing, dance and clap their way through the entire show (mostly silently) and by the end are up on their feet.

Anyone from about 9 to 99 should enjoy Million Dollar Quartet, and even for those below a certain age who may not intrinsically know the legends or songs the show celebrates, the entirely amiable musical can provide a rather wonderful introduction.

So even if you've let 7 years pass without making it to the Apollo Theater in Chicago, there's still a month and a half to have a helluva good time.

Though as good and crowd-pleasing as it is, I have to imagine Million Dollar Quartet may well reinvest itself locally before all that long. 

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