By Barry Reszel
There’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on in Lincolnshire. Nat Zegree portraying frenetic piano-playing genius Jerry Lee Lewis and Laura Savage as Elvis Presley‘s girlfriend-of-the-day Dyanne certainly see to that.
Indeed, the ebullient James Moye-directed Million Dollar Quartet steadfastly delivers on each part of the musical’s triune expectations—part hootenanny, part concert, part biopic. But distinctive to this production is the oozing sensuality delivered overtly by the (doesn’t-know-better) country bumpkin (Zegree as Lewis) juxtaposed with the subtle, (knows exactly what she’s doing) continual motion by Savage as Dyanne, from her understated entrance to the final bows
This is a particular victory for Savage, the topnotch Chicagoland triple threat and perennial dance captain who triumphantly marked her one-year anniversary of an ACL tear on M$Q‘s opening night. Savage aficionados will be glad to read she has not missed a beat, and it’s a particular joy to watch her fabulous abilities in this sultry starring role. Note that her solo renditions of both “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking” are cast-recording worthy.
Along with Savage, Zegree’s running (jumping, shimmying, undulating…) with a script written to explore Lewis’ hilariously eccentric personality coupled with his maniacally gifted piano work is unadulterated joy paired with jaw-dropping awe at this actor’s multiple talents.
These are the most indelible images of a truly outstanding production of Chicago favorite M$Q, focusing on one day the music lived. The story is an embellished recounting of stars aligning in 1956. On this day, rock ‘n’ roll’s Mt. Rushmore (Presley, Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins) payed homage to their Gutzon Borglum (Producer Sam Phillips) at his Memphis-based Sun Records studio.
With a score including more than 20 early rock, folk and country hits sung by America’s fab four, M$Q was created by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, premiered in Florida (2006) and enjoyed a successful Broadway run (2010-11) that included a Best Musical Tony nomination. But arguably, the show’s greatest success was enjoyed in Chicago, where its 2008 Goodman opening transferred to the Apollo theatre and stayed until January 2016, closing after nearly 3,000 performances.
The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, with its storied “in the round” setting (really, it’s a square), is perfect for this production. Jeffrey D. Kmiec‘s simple Sun Records studio set onstage is augmented, since the actors supply all the live music, by use of Marriott’s usual orchestra pit behind section one as the studio’s sound booth. But make no mistake, the shakin’ goes on front and center.The plot focuses on December 4, 1956, when Presley (with girlfriend Dyanne), Perkins, Cash and Lewis all happened to be in attendance at Phillips’ studio. The event was captured by a famous photograph (above), and Phillips is credited with coining the title moniker to represent the four men’s careers he launched. Business is mixed with the pleasure of the evening’s jam session, and while the talented musicians are the stuff of this terrific musical, it’s clear this is really Phillips’ story. (A full history and plot summary may be read here.)
Music Director Ryan T. Nelson assembles a terrific team of musicians to accompany the well-known songbook. The duo of onstage backup musicians includes Zach Lentino on bass (reprising his 2017 Paramount Theatre role as Jay Perkins) and Kieran McCabe on percussion as studio musician Fluke. Moye guides this one act version of M$Q at an excellent pace, pulling the most from his quartet of acting musician/impressionists to effectively sell their representations of American legends.
Highlights are well-known hits that are part of the American musical canon. These include Shaun Whitley‘s (Perkins) “Who do You Love?” and “See You Later Alligator”; Christopher J. Essex‘s (Cash) “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and “Sixteen Tons”; Rustin Cole Sailors‘ (Presley) “Hound Dog” and “Long Tall Sally”; and Zegree’s (Lewis) “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
Finally, David Folsom as Phillips is a nuanced actor who allows those who made his character famous to tell the story of this tale’s ostensible lead without getting in their way. It’s curious this character’s only musical contribution is as a backup singer, and one can’t help but wonder if giving him an aside ballad (Presley hit “Are You Lonesome Tonight” comes immediately to mind) would add to this characterization. Still his role is to remind audiences the key to good friendship and good business alike is relational. The lesson is punctuated with understanding that the success afforded these members of his Million Dollar Quartet would not have come without him.
So to beat the winter chill, patrons best lay down their swords and shields down by the riverside and make a trek to Lincolnshire where there’s a whole lotta sexy shakin’ goin’ on!
Marriott Theatre presents “Million Dollar Quartet” through March 16 at 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire. More information and tickets are available here.