Chicago is home to more than 200 acclaimed theater troupes and venues. So whether you’re planning a Chicago getaway or vacation, right now, the hottest show in town is “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Apollo Theatre.
This rocking, rolling musical pays homage to four of the biggest legends in music history, and tells the true story of how they all got together for a single jam session that only lasted for an hour or two, but birthed a movement that still influences rock music today.
The legend begins
It was a sleepy Tuesday afternoon in December, when the biggest singer in the world dropped by Sun Records’ Memphis studio for a chat with owner Sam Phillips. The year was 1956 and former Sun Records artist Elvis Presley’s career was skyrocketing. Presley had just appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, drawing the largest TV audience in history to that point.
Phillips asked Presley to listen to a session that Carl Perkins of “Blue Suede Shoes” fame had just recorded. Elvis liked the recording so much he went into the studio for an impromptu jam session with Perkins. And on the piano? A certain Jerry Lee Lewis who was – at the time – only marginally famous in Memphis.
After a few songs, the original Man in Black – Johnny Cash – joined in the jam. Luckily, Phillips left the tapes recording during the session. The four icons played and sang a variety of genres, from gospel to rockabilly to bluegrass. The next day, the local paper ran a story about the jam, calling it the “Million Dollar Quartet,” and the group was born.
“Million Dollar Quartet” tells the story of that fateful afternoon in Memphis, through a series of exuberantly performed musical numbers that recreate the famed 90-minute jam session. You’ll have a hard time staying still through rocking renditions of favorites such as “Hound Dog,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Walk the Line.”
Since the show began in Chicago in 2008, critics have issued glowing reviews for “Million Dollar Quartet.” The Chicago Tribune describes the performances as ”virtuoso,” and Time Out Chicago calls “Million Dollar Quartet” authentic and acoustically expert, with actors who portray their characters in a manner “so dead-on, it’s ridiculous.”
But newspaper critics aren’t the only ones who love the musical; the Tony Awards honored “Million Dollar Quartet” with three nominations in 2010, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical. Actor Levi Kreis took home the Best Performance Tony for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Speaking of actors, along with singing, cast members must also be proficient instrumental musicians. Actors in the Apollo Theatre production include bluegrass, folk and jazz guitarist Christopher Damiano in the role of Johnny Cash, rockabilly pianist Lance Lipinsky as Jerry Lee Lewis, and bass and mandolin player Shaun Whitley as Carl Perkins.
Several celebrities have even joined the cast over the years, including Melissa Etheridge, Lesley Gore, Ray Benson, and Jerry Lee Lewis himself.
For a toe-tapping, rollicking show that’s sure to get you moving in your seat, don’t miss “Million Dollar Quartet.” After all, you wouldn’t want to miss the night that changed rock ‘n’ roll forever. For more information on the Chicago show, visit the Apollo Theatre’s website for more information about times and pricing.