Circa ’21’s ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ Is A Million Dollar Show
Circa ‘21’s “Million Dollar Quartet” is a million dollar show. It’s expertly presented, from the set to the costumes to the casting to the sound, capturing a fascinating and colorful moment in time in the history of rock ‘n’ roll and doing so with such great energy and reverence that it earned a well-deserved standing ovation at its opening show.
“Million Dollar” is inspired by the famed recording session that brought together rock ‘n’ roll icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins for the first and only time on Dec. 4, 1956. On that date, the four then-young budding stars gathered at Sun Records in Memphis for what would be one of the greatest jam sessions ever, and the Tony-winning “Million” captures that moment in time.
It’s fascinating for me to watch as a fan of early rock ‘n’ roll. Sun was a seminal indie label in the rise of the art form, and of course the four involved were equally impactful. Perkins, who is the least known today, was actually perhaps the biggest star of the label, initially, becoming the first act to hit the top of the country, blues and pop charts with “Blue Suede Shoes.” But he had a hard time following up that massive success, and was quickly eclipsed by the charismatic and accessible Presley and the brooding and mysterious Cash. At the time, Lewis was just a rising star, who would likewise burn bright then fade after an early supernova, but like Perkins would become incredibly influential.
At the center of it all was the genius of the Sun label, one of the first visionary producers, Sam Phillips. Phillips had that unerring knack for just knowing how to capture the talents of certain people, the same knack later shown by other behind-the-scenes legends like Lorne Michaels, George Martin and Malcolm McLaren. In one of the best performances of the show, the vibrant and likeable Tom Walljasper hits the right notes as Phillips, as an amiable, hard-working, sincere entrepreneur who was about to get caught up in the wave of his own success being noticed by others who were lacking his talent but who outweighed him in bankroll.
The second-best performance of the show, well, perhaps, actually, the best, even eclipsing Walljasper’s, goes to Brandon Fillette as the wild, untamed Lewis. Fillette is fantastic musically and has the feral, funny, crazy quality that made Lewis such an original.
Much more laid back are Stephen Edwards Horst as Cash and Morgan McDowell as Presley. But having read both their biographies, this isn’t out of character, for while both of them were transformed on stage, behind-the-scenes they were far more low key. Christopher Wren as Perkins is more of a firebrand, bitterly burning about his being eclipsed by the new stars who he feels, perhaps not so wrongly, have drafted on his success to find fame. That’s certainly not to say that those that followed weren’t deserving, and in fact, talent-wise weren’t more deserving than Perkins. But it was Perkins who put Sun on the map and smashed open the doors for that more transcendent talent to have the opportunity to be noticed.
In all, it makes for a great, complex show of genuine characters that acts as a solid backbone to what most people will find the most compelling about the performance – the music.
The music, at least the musical backing, is rock solid and the performances are terrific. Not all of the performers sound like the originals – Horst and McDowell are fine but neither is a dead on impersonator for Presley or Cash – but they capture enough of the feel for the songs and the musicianship behind them is top notch. Fillette as Lewis is the best of the bunch in hitting his target, nailing the manic feel of Jerry Lee in voice and banging piano. But all of them do a great job and if you’re just going to hear the tunes, you will be very happy in what you hear.
It’s funny, I was talking to Circa ’21 owner Denny Hitchcock about this show in relation to their last one, “Menopause: The Musical.” My review of that show was mixed. I personally wasn’t a giant fan, but I felt it was well done overall and fully acknowledged I wasn’t the target audience. It was predominantly for middle-aged and up women, and that audience loved it.
On the other hand, you have “Million Dollar,” which, for a rock fan like me, is a nirvana. I was very much looking forward to it. But in addition to it being extremely well done, I also feel it has a really broad appeal. My eight-year-old son, Jackson, went to it with me, and he loved it. He found the performances compelling and the music energizing. The rest of the audience, of various ages and genders, agreed.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is well worth the price of admission. Go check it out before it takes its final bows on Nov. 5.
“Million” will be performed at Circa ’21 on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturdays evenings at 7:45 p.m., Sundays at 5:45 p.m., and Wednesday matinées at 1:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $50.16 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $44.41 for the plated-lunch matinées.
Reservations are available through the Circa ’21 ticket office. For reservations, contact the theatre at 1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island or by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2. Online reservations may also be made by visiting www.Circa21.com and clicking on “order tickets now.”