REVIEW: Million Dollar Quartet – yeah, it still rocks!

Yeah, it still rocks



Apollo Theater Chicago presents
Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Musical Arrangements by
Chuck Mead
Directed by
Floyd Mutrux & Eric Schaeffer
Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through September 5th  |  tickets: $59-$80  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

I know two people that have seen Million Dollar Quartet over 30 times. A retired married couple, they are the target audience of the musical: seniors with a nostalgic appreciation for the pioneers of rock n’ roll. I have a nostalgic appreciation for No Doubt. My knowledge of Johnny Cash’s music is the “Walk the Line” soundtrack, my Elvis I.Q. is limited to my mother’s cassettes on road trips, and I recognize the songs mdq-03 of Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, but know next to nothing about the men themselves. That being said, Million Dollar Quartet is currently playing on Broadway with a national tour in the works and Tony nominations in its pocket, so it’s got to be good, right?

It is.

I expected dynamic musical numbers from skilled performers, but Million Dollar Quartet is more than just a glorified cover band. Escott and Mutrux’s book is edutainment at its finest, a spirited history lesson on the early days of rock n’ roll centered on legendary music producer Sam Phillips (Tim Decker), the man responsible for the superstar jam session. Decker understands the emotional journey of his character, from Phillips’ pride in the humble Sun Records, his anger at losing his major talent, and his hope in the future of rock n’ roll. Phillips’ devotion to the music is clear in Decker’s confidence on stage, portraying a man whose home is the studio.

Flashbacks to Phillips’ first encounters with Perkins (Gabe Bowling), Cash (Sean Sullivan), and Presley (David Lago) establish the relationship between the musicians and their producer, and reveal how paramount Phillips was to the evolution of these men as artists. These three men are the already established Sun Records family, three brothers that don’t always get along but respect each other, with Lewis (Lance Lipinsky) as the cocky new kid with the potential to be a star. When the four of them play together, the results are electric, and Phillips is that tie that binds them.

The thrill of Million Dollar Quartet is seeing four legends playing together for the first and only time. The actors have to sell the illusion for maximum impact, and the new cast does so admirably. Lipinsky has big shoes to fill – Levi Kreis is nominated for a Tony and has won the Outer Critics Circle for Best Featured Actor – but he backs up Lewis’s ego with boundless energy and fevered fingers that showcase his technical mastery. Lipinsky’s mischievous smile and carefree demeanor contrast with his more professional comrades, providing comic relief and adding tension to the script, particularly in his interactions with Bowling’s hotheaded Perkins. With his hit song “Blue Suede Shoes” usurped by Presley and his record sales dwindling, Perkins stands to lose the most, and Bowling finds the desperation that lies beneath the temper.

mdq01Sullivan has Cash’s bass vocals down pat, and his gentle conduct serves to make the character’s conflict – telling Phillips he will not be renewing his Sun contract – all the more believable. As the most imitated of the group, Lago does all the hip shaking and lip curling you expect, but is careful not to become a caricature. At this point in his career Elvis is still a young upstart, and Lago plays him with an understated sexuality that suggests a man not yet in control of the power he has over people, especially women. Kelly Lamont brings some estrogen to the studio as Dyanne, Presley’s sassy girlfriend with a powerhouse belt, and her rendition of “Fever” smolders, starting softly and building in intensity until the last note. Watching the quartet take turns flirting with her is consistently amusing, and the a cappella fan in me swooned as she vocalized the fiddle part in “Riders in the Sky.”

When the quartet plays, they forget about contracts and television appearances and just live in the music. That release is rock n’ roll, and Million Dollar Quartet is a fitting tribute to its early years that shouldn’t be missed.

Rating: ★★★½



Wednesday Wordplay: Mary Tyler Moore and Oscar Wilde



Having a dream is what keeps you alive. Overcoming the challenges make life worth living.
Mary Tyler Moore



The toughest thing about success is that you’ve got to keep on being a success. Talent is only a starting point in this business. You’ve got to keep on working that talent. Someday I’ll reach for it and it won’t be there.
            — Irving Berlin, 1958

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
            — Edith Wharton, Vesalius in Zante


Oscar Wilde

Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.
Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan


Art is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in.
            — Amy Lowell

For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use being anything else.
            — Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Mayor’s banquet speech, 1954



Only some people get what they want. Those are the people who show up to get it.
            — Dianne Houston, Take The Lead, 2006

Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.
            — Amy Bloom

May I never miss a sunset or a rainbow because I am looking down.
Sara June Parker



I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate.
            — George Burns




REVIEW: An Evening with David Sedaris (Steppenwolf)

An evening well spent


Steppenwolf Theatre presents
An Evening With David Sedaris
at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
through June 13th  | 
more info
tickets: currently sold out, but call 312-335-1650 for updates

I have read a couple of David Sedaris books over the years and I wasn’t sure what to expect of an evening with the author himself. The excitement in the lobby of the Steppenwolf Theatre was muted and yet palpable. This was an NPR kind of crowd and that was cool with me. Still, as a person who has found myself laughing davidsedaris150x200uncontrollably on the “L’ while reading “Naked”, I wondered how Mr. Sedaris would pull off such a feat as being hysterically funny in person.

He entered the stage without a lot of fanfare carrying a binder and what turned out to be a thrift store painting of Parisian ragamuffins. Sedaris got right down to business reading from his new book titled “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary” (with illustrations by Ian Falconer) due in fall 2010. He called them his take on the fable and indeed the two that he told had a moral.

Mr. Sedaris tells the first fable from the point of view of a curious owl that asks questions of the more interesting prey. This owl is on a quest to be more than just his appetites and drive to hunt. If the prey has an interesting story, the owl releases it only to watch his parasitic (and hilariously stupid) family show up to eat the poor creatures anyway. The tales are told in a matter of fact style that is both absurd and surreal. I have yet to shake the image of the owl’s passive aggressive mother arriving as he is about to snack on an unfortunate rabbit.

He shared another fable of a bully rabbit based on an incident with airport security that was also dark and visceral. I don’t know of many people who can make decomposition and carrion quite so funny. He shared that the fables would also be released in audio format and that the incomparable Elaine Stritch would read the bully rabbit story.

Good storytellers reveal the world more than tell the listener or reader something new. There are a multitude of facts on this planet but Sedaris crafts the story behind them and puts a kaleidoscope spin on even scientific facts. As part of the owl fable, there is something revealed about leeches and hippos that could have been a gross out moment. I took away a new attitude about leeches and a new respect for gerbils.

Sedaris finished the evening with excerpts from his diary that revealed more of how his process works and then opened the floor for questions. I will admit to anxiety over the Q&A part of the evening. There is always some yahoo who wants to have the deepest question to prove that they “get” the subject matter and it usually opens the gates of pandering pseudo-intellectual hell. Thank the Universe that was not the case this evening. There were good and respectful questions, and Mr. Sedaris was most accommodating. He spoke of what he is currently reading and who his inspiration was for live performance (Whoopi Goldberg). He also bought a lovely parting gift in the aforementioned Parisian ragamuffins painting. It was such an endearing moment when he asked if anyone collected thrift shop paintings and then gave it to the one person who admitted such a hobby. He also brings books and other knick-knacks to give away on occasion. It is a lovely to see beyond the surface of the absurdities of life. I recalled our velvet rendition of “Lady and the Tramp” in my childhood living room and wondered what happened to it.

Mr. Sedaris travels quite a bit for his work and has some delightful tales of time spent on planes and in airports. I would say that you should take care with your attire should he be around. Above all do not wear ethnically challenging hair or colloquialisms on your tee shirt. You will find yourself in a story and deservedly mocked.

An Evening with David Sedaris is playing at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre through June 13th 2010. Try your best to score a ticket through or call 312-335-1650. The show that I saw was sold out and there were hopeful people willing to wait on standby. It is worth the ticket and I look forward to the book both written and in audio form. Due to David Sedaris, a trip to the zoo is forever changed and I will be checking out the hippopotamus in a whole new way.

Rating: ★★★