Million Dollar Quartet has been a gift to the Chicago Theater community for eight years. Having seen Million Dollar Quartet twice before, I needed to catch the excitement once more before it closed its doors on January 17, and indeed this ode to rock ‘n’ roll’s early years improves with each viewing.
Most audience members will focus on the music, which often pushes the amp up to 11, particularly in numbers performed by Jerry Lee Lewis (Colte Julian) and Elvis Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne (Kelly Lamont, who finished the role in Chicago after originating it in 2008). Equally mesmerizing is the talent of the performers. Year after year, the production found actors to impersonate Lewis, Carl Perkins (Shaun Whitley), Johnny Cash (Adam Lee), and Elvis Presley (Brandon Bennett)—playing their instruments like rock stars, creating four-part harmonies for songs like “Down by the Riverside,” and delivering their lines to emphasize the conflicted notions each character feels about his past, present, and future connections to music studio Sun Records.
Possibly 0verlooked is the extraordinary book co-written by Colin Escott (the author of Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll) and Floyd Mutrux. Sam Phillips (Andy Ahrens) is highlighted as the protagonist that changed rock music by recognizing a market for the rock-a-billy sound. Phillips wasn’t looking for performers that would imitate the success of others (he humorously states that he had to help Johnny Cash to stop trying to be Dean Martin); instead, he wanted performers that could create toe-tapping songs about a pair of blue suede shoes or a stay in the Folsom County Jail. Phillips’ enthusiasm for rock music is contagious, but he is not without conflicts. Phillips sensed that he was mocked by the music industry for selling Elvis Presley’s lucrative contract for $40,000—a business decision necessary to keep Sun Records afloat.
With Phillips at the center, Escott and Mutrux’s book tells the story of one artist that misses the simplicity of working in a small Memphis studio (Presley), two artists struggling to tell Phillips that they have grown past his meager two-man operation (Cash and Perkins), and one unestablished artist arrogant enough to tell the other three that he will be replacing them at the top of the charts (Lewis). All of these developments are contained in a tight, one-act show filled with rocking standards.
Few musicals play out in real time, and Million Dollar Quartet wisely does not reach beyond the historic meeting of these four artists at Sun Records (cemented in time by the famous photo of Presley, Cash, Perkins, and Lewis at the piano). Yes, the book provides drama, but it also allows its audience to sit back and observe a jam session where musical pioneers jump into each song as the mood takes them.*
Million Dollar Quartet has toured America and played Broadway, but it will never find a more fitting or appreciative home than its reconstructed Sun Records studio at Chicago’s intimate Apollo Theater.
*My favorite numbers are the Johnny Cash led “Sixteen Tons” and Dyanne’s “Fever,” but every song is a winner. Notably, a Carl Perkins rendition of “Run Rudolf Run” was added for the holidays.