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This story really happened
Wed have rehearsals all day,
[Jerry Lee Lewis] was an
by Cindy-jo Dietz
THERE ARE MOMENTS in time that change everything events and circumstances colliding and redefining who we are and where we go from here. December 4th, 1956 was one of these moments for four incredible musicians and the man who brought them together.
Whether Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash or Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records studio, had any idea or not, their lives and careers would be altered forever by what happened one night, a moment in time, a moment in rock and roll history.
Broadway Palm Dinner Theatres production of Million Dollar Quartet will take you back to a time when rock and roll was still in its infancy, a time when musicians had to be inventive, had to reach deep into their soul to bring you a new sound.
The scene takes place in the one room Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee, where Sam Phillips, owner and producer, has called together four young musicians for an impromptu jam session. Word leaked out, and the quartet got its name thanks to a newspaper man who was in the right place at the right time, claiming, This quartet could sell a million. Thereafter, the group was dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. This was the only performance the quartet would have together, but it helped Phillips, Lewis and Presley become charter inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cash and Perkins would soon follow.
I have no idea where these actors get their energy from, but they spent the entire 90 minutes of the show moving. Their performances were remarkable since not only were they acting, but they also play their instruments and pretty much dance and sing the entire time on stage. The cast mesmerized the audience, capturing the unique moment, the characters personalities, and the ground-breaking music flawlessly.
I was lucky enough to sit with the four main actors who played Cash, Perkins, Presley and Lewis after one of the performances. The cast is young, but they are all consummate professionals. How could they not be? It takes serious dedication to pull off performances like these night after night.
Evan Harris, tall and thin with dark hair, plays Johnny Cash, who was six feet, two inches tall. Harris walks like Cash, talks like Cash, and also captures Cashs distinctive singing and guitar playing. He says this is actually the first time he has had to play guitar through an entire show, Usually Im an act, sing, dance guy. Its completely new to me. Ive learned a lot.
I asked him what drew him to Cash as a character. He told me that he feels Cash really brings a different style to the show, having more of a country feel. You cant compare one of the songs I play as Cash to Elvis, because its completely different, adding, Each character has his certain style, and influenced rock and roll in their own way.
The really cool thing about this show, he says is, Look at the Buddy Holly Story or Ring of Fire, which is all about Johnny Cash. Those stories are semi-fictional. But this story really happened one night. A lot of people dont know that. They see the whole storyline come together and its really moving.
Harris also tells me that he is usually a tenor, so singing so low was something he had to adjust to. He also explains that when it comes to the choreography in this show hes getting off easy compared to the other actors. The Cash character is definitely one of the more stoic.
Speaking of dance moves, nobody had the moves of Elvis Presley, known for his hip shaking, pulsating gestures. Elvis was more than a musician, he was a showman and Skip Robinson portrays him splendidly. Robinson confesses that he feels he got lucky to get the part of Elvis Presley. Hes the king of rock and roll. Ive always been a huge fan. My grandparents were huge Presley and Cash fans, so Ive been listening to this music since I was 12 or 13, he says, adding, Coming into auditions, I already knew all the songs. Given this opportunity has just been awesome.
He admits, My legs are just gone. The guy moves like crazy. Also, Ive had to sing in a lot of shows before but not like someone else. Getting into the depth of what Elvis voice was, and just getting more of a command over my voice was the challenge.
I asked Skip about how he liked working at Broadway Palm. The people around us have been great, he says. Before you can address a problem it has already been solved, from the help, the staff, everyone, to the stage itself, its been phenomenal.
As Carl Perkins, Christopher Wren really puts himself into the character and tries to embody the person to the fullest. As he describes Perkins to me, you can tell he took serious interest in learning the part, getting to know the man himself and the music he created. I grew up listening to this music because of my mother, who grew up in the 50s, he explains. Learning about Perkins and how influential he was to the rock and roll movement, a guy who it turns out people dont know much about, was awesome. Where I think most audiences dont know this story, or Perkins, they definitely will after 90 minutes.
I asked Wren how he prepared for the role. Im a blues guitarist, so playing rockabilly is a very different style, he explains. Theres a lot of things you cant do, because you know Chuck Berry never did that and obviously my character never did that, so learning the style and specific licks Im glad to have all that in my bag of tricks now. He adds, My fingers are absolutely, completely calloused. Wed have rehearsals all day, then I would go home and I would practice everything again, then wed go back and do it all again the next day.
I was surprised when I met Jason Cohen. At first I didnt even recognize him from the Jerry Lee Lewis character he plays on stage. And as a piano player, there are not too many musicians who could pull off what Jason is called upon to do. The intensity and the charisma of the character has got to demand a lot out of an actor and Jason dives right in there and tears it up.
Jason says, Jerry Lee had an insane control over the audience. Theres one video I referenced a lot. Its him playing, Im pretty sure in London, 1964, so 8 years after Million Dollar Quartet happens, but hes playing A Whole Lotta Shaking and theres all these kids around his piano. It looks like theyre all possessed. Its honestly an incredible thing to see. He adds, You know, I have this line in the show, We get em all frocked up so they talk in tongues, like theyre in church And those kids, they are talking in tongues, they are reaching for his hair like hes this God. Its amazing to see, and he had that since he became a big thing. I mean he was like 21 at the time of this show. He was just an incredible person to watch. Hes out of his mind for sure. It must be awesome to be that crazy.
I asked Jason if he had any particular favorite moments in the show hed like to mention. Theres a lot of spotlight on the quartet, but Sam Phillips has my favorite line, Dont forget what happened here, because it would have happened no place else, he answers. These people Presley, Perkins, Cash, Jerry Lee, a piano player none of that stuff would have happened if it wasnt for Sam Phillips risking it all. Thats such a cool thing. This man trusted these people and changed music for the western world.
Jason tells me about opening night, The first time we performed in front of an audience, by the end of the show I was dead. I felt ill. I really didnt feel like I could do it again. I even thought I was going to throw up. The jackets are very heavy, the lights are very bright, and were jumping around. He adds, Now its much more of a manageable beast. Its more fun and a lot easier. As opposed to doing a marathon, you start with one mile, two miles, three miles. We started with 26 miles and just kept at it.
Million Dollar Quartet, the exercise routine, chimes in Chris Wren.
The actors of Million Dollar Quartet all expressed their interest in having audience members learn from the performance. I didnt really know most of this music from this era before I started the show, admits Jason. If I was in the audience I would grow very curious to learn more about these four artists, about Sam Phillips and about Sun Records.
Maybe someone decides to play guitar because of Johnny Cash. It could be that simple, adds Robinson.
Typically, the audience for Million Dollar Quartet does tend to be in an age bracket that grew up with this music. Wren puts it perfectly, I think what weve noticed and weve all done a lot of theater and a lot of shows is you get audiences that may be older than other audiences, but whats remarkable about this show, this story, the way its all put together and the music, is they seem to have this massive amount of energy I dont think any of us have ever experienced. He adds, Theyre up on their feet dancing and shaking, singing the songs, they know all the words. I mean, youve experienced little bits of that, but not at this level, not at this magnitude or with this consistency.
Million Dollar Quartet will be playing at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre thru November 21. The theatre is located at 1380 Colonial Blvd. in Fort Myers. For more information, call 278-4422.