“Million” Honors an Amazing Moment in Rock
By Tom Keogh
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at Sun Studio on Dec 4, 1956.
Music fans who revere the legacy of Sun (which released hit tunes on the Sun Records label) and its visionary owner, producer Sam Phillips, know that rock ‘n’ roll was partially invented behind the walls of the small recording facility in Memphis, Tenn. That’s where, among other things, the determined Phillips pulled a synthesis of blues, country, rockabilly and gospel out of Elvis Presley for the latter’s groundbreaking first releases in 1954.
Two years later, Presley was no longer with Sun. But his December visit in ’56, that led to an impromptu jam session with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, was a momentous occasion — and the subject of Village Theatre’s exhilarating new musical “Million Dollar Quartet.”
A blend of historical fact, wistfulness and love for Phillips’ revolutionary contribution to American culture, “Million Dollar Quartet” is the closest thing to wish fulfillment for anyone who has dreamed of witnessing Presley, Perkins, Lewis and Cash blend their disparate influences into an original, albeit brief, sound.
The book by Colin Escott (author of “Good Rockin’ Tonight — Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘N’ Roll”) and Floyd Mutrux (who directed a very good film about rock’s infancy, “American Hot Wax,” and co-directed “Quartet,” along with Matt Walker) isn’t a forced narrative with musical accompaniment. It’s a reflection of a moment in time that also coincided with the end of Phillips’ peak impact on rock’s development.
The action takes place over a few hours in which the primary drama is the music itself. “Quartet” is largely a concert with various ironies unfolding in the background, conflicts no one really wants to speak of lest they spoil the day’s bonhomie, but which will be addressed eventually.
“Quartet” opens on a fantasy note with Perkins (Rob Lyons) leading Presley (Dane Stokinger), Lewis (Levi Kreis) and Cash (Lance Guest) through a sizzling “Blue Suede Shoes.” It takes about a minute to realize that all four performers are, in fact, playing their own instruments, a rather dazzling detail particularly regarding Lyons and Kreis, who recreate the sensational fullness of their characters’ complex sound while capturing, respectively, Perkins’ coiled personality and Lewis’ shrewd wildness.
Stokinger’s Presley isn’t so much an impression as an allusion to a great artist who knows, on some level, he’s already been compromised and misses the purity of Sun. Guest, who is 47 and plays Cash at 24, brings a lifetime’s gravity to the Man in Black.
Matt Wolfe might have the toughest job, finding in the enigmatic and disillusioned Phillips a man who could hear the possibilities in rock ‘n’ roll before anyone else, but who couldn’t hold onto his creation for long.
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Million Dollar Quartet
October 10, 2007
The Village Theatre through Oct 28
By Paul Constant
One December evening in 1956, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins played a jam session with, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sun Records’ hottest new acquisition. Johnny Cash stopped by to pose for photos because Sam Phillips, Sun’s P. T. Barnumesque president, had invited a reporter. The impromptu four-man supergroup would never meet again.
Million Dollar Quartet is a dramatization of that night, and despite some dramatic tarting-up—Elvis’s girlfriend (Jessica Skerritt) sings a couple songs and gives a painful speech referring to rock ‘n’ roll as a “revolution”—it captures the significance of that night. All four men were about to experience the costs of unprecedented fame: Perkins was fading into obscurity after being eclipsed by Elvis, Cash would soon sign a lucrative contract with Columbia Records, Lewis was on the verge of becoming the world’s most popular rock star before losing it all by marrying his 13-year-old cousin, and Presley had just made the first of many atrocious movies and was about to embark on a two-decade descent into weirdness, self-loathing, and perversion.
The performances are excellent. The actors mimic each musician’s signature tics—Rob Lyons does Perkins’s odd guitar-playing chicken walk, Lance Guest’s Cash lifts his guitar over his head—but it’s more than impersonator shtick. The actors are a good ensemble and a fine band, and though their instruments keep them primarily rooted in place, they find room for fun: Lyons plays a hot guitar solo while standing precariously on an upright bass being played by another actor.
The unabashed star of the show is Levi Kreis’s Lewis, an arrogant bastard who revels in his own talent. Kreis’s leg is in a brace—he threw out his knee in an earlier performance after vaulting over the piano—but his Southern-fried bravura is still magnificent. In real life, Lewis is the only surviving member of the Quartet. Here, too, the Killer gets the last laugh.
Million Dollar Quartet: Rockabilly Revue Features Solid Performances
By Miryam Gordon – SGN A&E Writer
Almost more of a revue than a musical, Million Dollar Quartet features some of the best rockabilly musicians. Four remarkable performances by Lance Guest as Johnny Cash, Levi Kreis as Jerry Lee Lewis, Rob Lyons as Carl Perkins and Dane Stokinger as Elvis Presley, are as good as it gets, as they sing and play all their own instruments on stage. They are backed up by Corey Kaiser on bass and James Reif on drums, creating a seamless musical experience of the earliest days of these great performers.
The date is December 4, 1956, near Christmas, as these former and current Sun Records musicians visit with their mentor, Sam Phillips (Matt Wolfe). It was a real event, and they apparently did record a number of songs together, off the cuff. Not clear is if Elvis’ girlfriend, Dyanne, played by the lovely Jessica Skerritt, actually sang with them, as she does in this production. The list of songs covers all of their early hits and gives you a history of what they were doing before Sam Phillips found them and launch their recording careers.
The production values are all solid, with a nice, cluttered set by Scott Fyfe, exciting concert-style lighting by Alex Berry and great musical direction by Chuck Mead. The sound technician had the volume up kind of high at the beginning of the show I saw, but thankfully, it turned down a notch as the show went on.
It’s a joy to watch such talented musicians, performing classic hits, but if one could be said to stand out among the standouts, Levi Kreis is an amazing pianoman. His exuberance is unstoppable. He has apparently injured himself, after doing a stunt of jumping over the piano, so he’s not performing that stunt anymore. I don’t think we really need him to hurt himself for our entertainment! He’s just as fun without it.
If the 50s and Presley, Lewis, Cash and Perkins are your kind of music, then don’t miss it.
‘Quartet’ OK, But Some Great Songs Seem Missing
November 9, 2007
By Theresa Goffredo, Herald writer
The audience loved this show. They started clapping with “Great Balls of Fire” and didn’t stop until “Whole Lotta Shakin Goin’ On” ended. The crowd was shoulder to shoulder. They packed the theater and I love that. It was like being at a rock concert.
But this was no concert. It was “Million Dollar Quartet,” a musical based on a jam session, presented by Village Theatre and playing through Nov. 25. As is the case in most jam sessions, the musicians play what they want, not necessarily their hits, i.e., what people want to hear.
The people who on Friday filled Everett Performing Arts Center, however, were delighted with the music they got. I was not. And the selection of songs was one the first of the problems of this new musical that the audience welcomed like a hot new rock star but that I found flawed because if you came to the theater expecting to hear “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” or other familiar hits by Johnny Cash, then you went away disappointed.
Cash was one of the four members of the million dollar quartet. The reference is to Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. These four greats, through a twist of fate that I’m still not clear about, were brought together and performed an impromptu jam session Dec. 4, 1956, at Sun Studios in Memphis. It was a freak moment when they got together, also joined by the man who discovered them, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. The moment was captured in the Memphis Press-Scimitar and was also an event in Colin Escott’s book “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”
And thus “Million Dollar Quartet” captures that session. And I suppose to be true to that history, the 27 songs played during the session perhaps didn’t include certain Cash favorites, some of which hadn’t been produced yet. Instead we got “Down by the Riverside” and “Sixteen Tons.” Also, many of the hits Elvis put his name to (“Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t be Cruel,” “Hound Dog”) were not heard. Another disappointment.
But if we are keeping true to history, one wonders if that jam session really did include the song “Fever,” or was that just a theatrical vehicle to allow this production to have at least one sexy female in the show?
On the plus side, many of the songs from “Million Dollar Quartet” were ones the audience remembered from back in the day when they drove around in their parents’ cars. “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Who Do You Love?” “Willie and the Handjive” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
These songs were selected, according to press material about the show, to deliver an illuminating snapshot of the four geniuses — fair enough — and to reveal their jealousies and deep respect for each other. But I don’t think that happened. Because that would have involved a plot, and this show didn’t have one.
One character was wonderfully developed. Levi Kreis delivered a masterful performance playing Jerry Lee Lewis. Just like we would have imagined, he was mischievous, wily, hot as a rocket and not lacking in ego. “These fingers of mine got brains in ’em,” Lewis declared, and so they did. They were, in fact, the Ph.D. of fingers, brilliantly beating out rhythms from those ivories that sounded as if we were listening to the man himself. Kreis definitely rose to the head of the class in this show.
Also well done was Rob Lyons’ portrayal of Carl Perkins, who came off a bit tightly strung but likable nonetheless. Lance Guest played a subdued Johnny Cash. Matt Wolfe was solid as Sam Phillips. Jessica Skerritt was every sexy inch of what you’d imagine as an Elvis Presley girlfriend and, odd as it was, belted out an adequately sultry version of “Fever.” All I can say about Dane Stokinger’s flat performance of Elvis was that Elvis hadn’t left the building; he never arrived.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is a Winner
November 12, 2007
By Dale Burrows
Who but Village Theatre would dare tackle something like four music legends all out jamming, off the cuff, unrehearsed and entirely uninhibited? It’s like staging the Big Bang. Guess what? Village dared; and all of Everett Performing Arts Center came to its feet in sheer delirium, myself included. “Million Dollar Quartet” wails.
Why wouldn’t it? Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lewis no more than happened to run across one another at Sun Studios December 4, 1956. Nothing was arranged. Nothing was announced. But the guy who gave them each their start, Sam Phillips, sensed something big was sure to happen and got the local newspaper involved. Phillips was right. The four legends took to one another just being themselves, busted loose showing what they could do, and Phillips — ever the businessman — got it all recorded. The newspaper the next day labeled the quartet “The Million Dollar Quartet.” In 1956, a million was worth a billion today. Story material like that explodes with possibilities.
Then there is internationally acclaimed author and Grammy Award-winning producer Colin Escott (“The Complete Hank Williams”). Escott co-wrote the libretto. And celebrated movie producer Floyd Mutrux (“Scarecrow,” “Mulholland Falls”) co-wrote the libretto with Escott and co-directed with Matthew Walker. And Chuck Mead of the multiple Grammy-nominated country band BR549 directed the music. With back up like that, and a cast that can sing, act and play country rock, no wonder Village’s “Quartet” breaks all sound barriers. You can’t listen and not hear.
Levi Kreis blasts off. If you know Jerry Lee Lewis, you know he hit country rock like a meteorite. The man rocked the world, shocked England by marrying his 13-year-old second cousin and dropped from the big time because of the disgrace. He was a wild man who could do anything with a piano and even now is still touring. In “Quartet,” Kreis is the untamed essence of country rock on the keyboards, a smart alec in person and an all-around hillbilly hot shot. You like watching him. But you wouldn’t invite him home for a family dinner. Lance Guest’s Johnny Cash sings like Johnny Cash. Same deep, resonating voice bespeaking a lifetime of experience lived hard and full. Dane Stokinger’s Elvis “The King” Presley is pretty much what you would expect. All hips and brooding but with a velvety smooth way with a song. Record-business savvy, an eye for talent and a slick manner with talented people personify Matt Wolfe’s Sam Phillips. Wolfe makes the case for promoters who make a difference. Very strong acting. Rob Lyons as Carl Perkins takes a back seat to the other legends in the beginning but comes on in a big way as things move along. Jessica Skerritt steams as she teases the girl-crazy hunger out of a panting Jerry Lee Lewis. The whole house loved sweating it out, men for their reasons, women for theirs.
As for the music, it is the real show standout. You know these guys. The favorites that just keep going keep right on coming. “Great Balls of Fire,” “Love Me Tender,” “The Rock Island Line,” they are all there. A show for all ages. Recommended.
“Million Dollar Quartet”
The Village Theatre’s “Million Dollar Quartet” could give the 1950s a good name. It could even give testosterone a good name.
The year is 1956. The place is the Sun Records Studio in Memphis. The characters include Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. They are the “Million Dollar Quartet” of the title. Additional characters are Elvis’ paramour du jour (a shapely blonde named Dyanne), Sun impresario Sam Phillips, a drummer and a bass player.
The immortals of rockabilly perform immortal tunes. The show’s 30 songs include “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Party,” “Shake Rattle and Roll,” “Willie and the Handjive,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Among the pace-changers are “Sixteen Tons” (muy macho) and “Peace in the Valley” (gloriously harmonized).
Librettists Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have taken a real incident and turned it into a jukebox revue. There’s a dab of plot. Lewis and Perkins irk one another. Elvis has defected to RCA. Cash is trying to figure out a way to break the news that he’s about to sign with Columbia. But mostly the show is a tribute to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Co-directors Mutrux and Matt Walker have recruited sensational singer/instrumentalist/actors: Lance Guest as Cash, Levi Kreis as Lewis, Rob Lyons as Perkins and Dane Stokinger as Elvis. These four don’t seem like impersonators. Mostly they come across as inspired performers doing great work. As Lewis, Kreis is especially amazing: conceited, mouthy, athletic, witty, goofy and a fantastic piano man.
Jessica Skerritt, as Dyanne, does right by “Fever.” As Phillips, Matt Wolfe adds a bit of dramatic depth portraying a man who discovers rough talent, polishes it and then loses it to big money outfits. Adding essential byplay are Corey Kaiser on bass and James “Rif” Reif on percussion.
The explosions of youthful male energy — combining competition, cooperation and discipline — are pure exhilaration. The sense of creative, as opposed to destructive, testosterone is driven home by a particularly propulsive styling of “Down by the Riverside” with its emphatic refrain, “Ain’t a gonna study war no more.”
“New Play is a Million Dollar Experience”
Village Theatre Recreates One Night of Amazing Music
By Kathleen R. Merrill
It was Dec. 4 1956, when a not yet famous Jerry Lee Lewis was at Sun Records in Memphis working on his music with “father of rock ‘n’ roll” Sam Phillips. In a coincidence that led to one of the greatest jam sessions of all time, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, who were already famous by then, stopped by the studio that day.
The four never came together again. This Village Theatre original musical that opened last week, “Million Dollar Quartet” was created based pm that one day in time. The stars of the show-Lance Guest as Cash, Levin Kreis as Lewis, Rob Lyons as Perkins and Dane Stokinger as Presley-have the mannerisms if their characters down pat, making it easy to imagine you were there.
Stokinger’s voice isn’t as close to Presley’s as those of the other three are to Cash’s, Lewis’ and Perkins’. But Stokinger does nail Presley’s swagger, sneer and some of those famous moves.
Guest showcases Cash’s humble, down-home cool and his love of music. Lyons captures Perkins’ smooth and suave demeanor. Kreis absolutely channels Lewis nailing his rambunctiousness, self-assured cockiness and “killer” piano playing.
The musical talents of the four, and the other supporting players, are excellent. All play their own instruments and can really belt a song, making this musical a special treat.
The men’s harmonies on songs like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Peace in the Valley” are haunting and beautiful. Guest does an excellent “Sixteen Tons” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Kreis brings the audience to its feet with “Great Balls of Fire.”
The role of Presley’s girlfriend, played by Jessica Skerrrit, seems an unnecessary addition to the show, although Skerritt smolders, shimmies and shines in the role of Dyanne.
Matt Wolfe is funny and rea as Phillips. Corey Kaiser (as Carl’s brother Jay Perkins) and James “Rif” Reif (as the drummer) are wonderful backup musicians, and both add humor and fun.
There are jokes a-plenty here, and you’ll likely find yourself laughing throughout the show. You’ll also find poignant moments, especially toward the end, making not just the over-50 crowd long for yesterday, for simpler times past, for the pure rock ‘n’ toll of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.
And more than likely, you’ll long for Cash (who died in 2003), Perkins (who died in 1998), Presley (who died in 1977) and Lewis (who is still touring and making music), remembering how awesome they were when they were at the top of their game.
More than one person in the audience wiped away tears on opening night at a particularly moving moment. You’ll be hard pressed to decide whether the four men who play the stars of the music is the real star of this show.
The energy of the music, and the energy exuded by every member of the cast, kep the audience on its feet, clapping and singing along, for the final five numbers on opening night. Very few were lucky enough to be present at Sun Records that fateful day but “Million Dollar Quartet” has got to be the next best to being there.”
“Village Theatre Opens Season with Rock and Roll Original”
By Deborah Stone, Arts and Entertainment Writer
Village Theatre’s 2007-2008 season opens with “Million Dollar Quartet,” a rock and roll original musical inspired by an actual event. It was Dec. 4, 1956, at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., when a twist of fate brought Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash together for one night of music that made history.
These four legends-to-be united with Sun Records owner, Sam Phillips, the man who discovered each of them and who came to be known as the “Godfather of Rock-n-Roll.”
During the course of that evening, the four talented men played, talked, joked, argued and played some more. Their impromptu recording session became one for the ages and they were quickly christened the “Million Dollar Quartet.” The team of author/producer, Colin Escott, writer/director, Floyd Mutrux, and musical director Chuck Mead joined forces to tell the story of this memorable experience.
The result is an engaging and entertaining production that brings to life the music, personalities and spirit of these up-and-coming stars of rock-n-roll. Rather than giving audiences a sanitized, idealistic view of these legends, however, the show’s creators present them as real live, wild southern boys, who stumbled onto a new sound and helped to transform the world of music.
In between riffing and jamming, they banter about the roads to fame they have each taken and share their dreams and future plans. Deep-seated jealousies arise, but these are ultimately tempered by the sincere respect the men have for one another’s talents. And when the night ends, they take their leave, not knowing that this will be the last time they will ever be together.
To pull off this amazing true story, it is essential to have a gifted cast of musicians who can also act. As Jerry Lee Lewis, Levi Kreis is a dynamo and emulates his flamboyant character to the tee. He pounds on the piano, playing it at breakneck speed, and his fingers fly up and down the keys, as he jumps and jives to his brand of rock. The music is in Kreis, body and soul, and he has Jerry Lee’s mannerisms down pat.
Lance Guest, as Johnny Cash, has the rich baritone for the part and does justice to his role as the somber, dark musician.
And Rob Lyons is aptly mercurial as Carl Perkins, the man whose songs (i.e. “Blue Suede Shoes” ) mostly brought stardom to others. He razzes Jerry Lee, shows his resentment toward Elvis and snipes at Phillips, allowing his insecurities to leak through the tough-guy veneer he wears.
In the role of Elvis, Dane Stokinger is less effective.