“This story really happened
one night. A lot people
don’t know that.”

Evan Buckley Harris Johnny Cash

Elvis Presley Skip Robinson

“We’d have rehearsals all day,
then I would go home and
I would practice everything
again, then we’d go back
and do it all again
the next day.”

Christopher Wren Carl Perkins

Jerry Lee Lewis Jason Cohen

“[Jerry Lee Lewis] was an
incredible person to watch.
He’s out of his mind for sure.
It must be awesome to be
that crazy.”

Million Dollar Quartet

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 Theatre’s 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 Cash’s distinctive singing and guitar playing. He says this is actually the first time he has had to play guitar through an entire show, “Usually I’m an act, sing, dance guy. It’s completely new to me. I’ve 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 can’t compare one of the songs I play as Cash to Elvis, because it’s 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 don’t know that. They see the whole storyline come together and it’s 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 he’s 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. “He’s the king of rock and roll. I’ve always been a huge fan. My grandparents were huge Presley and Cash fans, so I’ve 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, I’ve 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, it’s 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 50’s,” he explains. “Learning about Perkins and how influential he was to the rock and roll movement, a guy who it turns out people don’t know much about, was awesome. Where I think most audiences don’t know this story, or Perkins, they definitely will after 90 minutes.”

I asked Wren how he prepared for the role. “I’m a blues guitarist, so playing rockabilly is a very different style,” he explains. “There’s a lot of things you can’t do, because you know Chuck Berry never did that and obviously my character never did that, so learning the style and specific licks – I’m glad to have all that in my bag of tricks now.” He adds, “My fingers are absolutely, completely calloused. We’d have rehearsals all day, then I would go home and I would practice everything again, then we’d go back and do it all again the next day.”

I was surprised when I met Jason Cohen. At first I didn’t 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. There’s one video I referenced a lot. It’s him playing, I’m pretty sure in London, 1964, so 8 years after Million Dollar Quartet happens, but he’s playing ‘A Whole Lotta Shaking’ and there’s all these kids around his piano. It looks like they’re all possessed. It’s 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 they’re in church’… And those kids, they are talking in tongues, they are reaching for his hair like he’s this God. It’s 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. He’s 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 he’d like to mention. “There’s a lot of spotlight on the quartet, but Sam Phillips has my favorite line, ‘Don’t 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 wasn’t for Sam Phillips risking it all. That’s 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 didn’t 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 we’re jumping around.” He adds, “Now it’s much more of a manageable beast. It’s 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 didn’t 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 we’ve noticed – and we’ve all done a lot of theater and a lot of shows – is you get audiences that may be older than other audiences, but what’s 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 don’t think any of us have ever experienced.” He adds, “They’re up on their feet dancing and shaking, singing the songs, they know all the words. I mean, you’ve 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.

November-December 2015