Last week I attended one of the last performances of the Chicago production of Million Dollar Quartet—a show about the December 1956 jam session at Sun Records with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis--before its transfer to Broadway. I wasn’t taken with the production, mainly for its lack of dramatic tension. In essence, just another juke box musical without a compelling storyline. Some great music performed by a very talented cast of actor/musicians, but I thought only Sean Sullivan was on target as the man in black himself, Johnny Cash. Of course, with my track record of predicting successful musicals I’m sure Million Dollar Quartert will be a smash hit when it opens next month.
But the most entertaining part of the night at the 440 seat Apollo Theater was not the action on stage, but in the audience. Shortly after the intermission-less show began people started leaving their seats to head out, I assume, to the restrooms. This was not one or two bladder-challenged individuals, but a steady stream. I was perched up in the last row (only eight rows from the stage) overlooking the exit ramp to the lobby which gave me a bird’s eye view of the audience comings and goings. It’s not that these actions were distracting from the show (even though as the evening progressed I became less and less interested in the antics of Jerry Lee Lewis or the whining of Carl Perkins). It was more of a curio, an oddity I had never witnessed in a Broadway house two, three, or four times the size of the Apollo. Is there something in the Chicago water that causes this problem or is this standard audience etiquette in The Windy City theaters?
Or maybe it was due to the amount of alcohol consumption before and during the performance. Now, all theaters have their bar area(s) and people will have a pick-me-up before the curtain rises or, in the case of the Apollo’s 3/4 thrust stage, the lights goes up, but usually with restraint. However, the activity at the theater’s sole watering hole resembled last call at the neighborhood tavern. No wonder, show or no show, when nature called it was time to head to the bathrooms. A prime example was the four blonde bimbos seated just in front of me. I kid you not, this quartet of boozers were sucking down their Bud Lite’s, cackling and laughing like they were in the bleacher seats of nearby Wrigley Field. At one point the tall one on the end left and shortly returned with a six-pack. A six pack of beer! In the theater!! During the performance!!! I don’t know what shocked me the most—the sight of this chicly dressed patron climbing up the aisle, six pack in hand, or the audacity of the theater for selling Bud Lite during the production (couldn’t they at least go upscale with a local microbrew?). I sat there, alternately, transfixed by their antics and dumbfounded by their impudence. Shushing them towards the end of the musical—yes, I actually shushed and didn’t suffer any bodily harm in the process—tempered their gusto to the occasional smirking murmur.
As the show wound down—the actor Lance Lipinsky channeled Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” for the finale--the juiced up quartet fled the theater. When the lights went up, the row in front of me was a minefield of empties. For a moment I didn’t know if I was leaving, as stated on the Apollo Theater’s website, (http://www.apollochicago.com/history.php) “a lush venue with a prestigious reputation, located in the heart of Chicago's fashionable Lincoln Park neighborhood,” or a venue for fashionable lushes!. Broadway, here we come!