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REVIEW: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET — Musical Theatre West @ Carpenter Performing Arts Center

As they played, history was knocking on the door.


Finally! Those teeming hordes of the middle-aged wandering without purpose in the theater district can come to rest at last. Their new destination: Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, where Million Dollar Quartet, a buoyantly rocking jukebox musical about a hallowed day in the history of rock ’n’ roll, opened last weekend to exhilarated audiences.

It was on the afternoon of December 4, 1956, when an auspicious twist of fate brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley together in one place to shoot the breeze, harmonize, strum their guitars or thunder away at the piano keys. The man who made it happen was producer Sam Phillips, the "Father of Rock 'n' Roll," who discovered them all. On that day, he had one of his slumping moneymakers—Perkins—in the studio to develop a new hit. And, in hopes of injecting a new talent into the fledging genre besides, Phillips had brought in his latest discovery, a young, outspoken, ambitious, crazed and immensely talented piano-player named Jerry Lee Lewis.

What resulted was a cultural flashpoint that captured the birth of rock ‘n’ roll which has come to be known as one of the greatest rock jam sessions of all time. Lewis and Presley were 21 at the time; Cash and Perkins were 24.

It was Carl Perkins who was the catalyst at the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee that night. He was there to record some new songs, including his own Matchbox, which riffed on some old blues lyrics by Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson and later became a Top 20 hit for the Beatles.

Back in January of that same year, Carl Perkins had released Blue Suede Shoes on Sun Records, scaling the country, rhythm and blues and Hot 100 charts and becoming a superstar in the process. Quick off the mark, Perkins' ex-labelmate, Elvis Presley, recorded his own cover the very same month, performed it live in February, and released his studio version in September.

As for that newly-signed “Killer” Jerry Lee Lewis, he was a relative unknown outside of Memphis in late 1956, with Whole Lotta Shakin' Going on and Great Balls of Fire still a few months away. Cousin to the famed southern evangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, both were expert pianists and both founded upon old-fashioned gospel music. But Sam Phillips had brought in Lewis that night to simply add some flaming keyboard licks on his Wurlitzer Spinet.

Elvis Presley had already left Sun Records a year earlier, with RCA Victor buying out his contract for $40,000. That may not sound like a lot, but it was a record at the time, and equivalent to $440,000 today. While still on good terms with Sam and Sun, he arranged to swing by the studio for a visit with his then-girlfriend Marilyn (renamed Dyanne in the musical).

Meanwhile, Johnny Cash had launched his career with his debut Cry! Cry! Cry! in June 1955, cementing his position with further country hits, including I Walk the Line. According to Cash, he was almost beside himself, eager to listen to Perkins’ session in the studio, and also have a meeting with Sam, who had a new three-year contract extension ready, in a desperate attempt to ensure the future of the languid company.

From those original recordings and sessions, the stage musical Million Dollar Quartet was immortalized, premiering first at Florida's Seaside Music Theatre in 2007. Yet it was the critically acclaimed Chicago launch of Million Dollar Quartet in 2008 at the Goodman Theatre that truly put the musical on the map. Soon after, it made its way to the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway in 2010 and was nominated for three Tony Awards before moving to the Noël Coward Theatre in London's West End the following year.

Chief among the show’s pleasures is the songbook, naturally, which includes a lot of the obvious chart toppers, Blue Suede Shoes, Folsom Prison Blues, Great Balls of Fire, Hound Dog, as well as country songs and spirituals like Peace in the Valley and Down by the Riverside. But the prime asset of Million Dollar Quartet, written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and directed here by Tim Seib, is the explosive vitality of the live performance music making.


Sadly, the quartet never again united, but after Elvis's death, the remaining trio got together on several occasions. First was Cash, Perkins and Lewis performing This Train is Bound for Glory on the Johnny Cash Christmas Special in 1977, along with special guest Roy Orbison – another Sun Records artist.

Then in 1982, Cash, Lewis and Perkins released The Survivors Live, a document recorded during Cash's 1981 European Tour. Finally, in 1986 the Mark II quartet of Cash, Lewis, Perkins and Orbison went to the original Memphis Recording Service Building to record the Class of '55: Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming album and an accompanying chatter/interviews collection.

The MTW actors portraying these pioneers—Will Riddle as Perkins, David Elkin Simpson as Cash, Garrett Forrestal as Lewis and L.J. Benet as Presley—are 100% A-list and don’t just play the roles but play the music too. Gifted musicians and likable performers, they tackle the unenviable chore of impersonating some of the most revered rock personalities of that era effortlessly and skillfully, from their slick pompadours right down to their frisky, agile fingertips.

The show is narrated by Sam Phillips (the ever-genial Adam Poole), founder of Sun Records, where all four of these musicians had their start. Phillips steps forward in between songs to annotate the story with informative asides or to re-enact his discovery of each of these Southern boys, all poor, ambitious and all fired up by the combustible merging of various strains of blues, gospel, jazz, country, and rhythm and blues, that ultimately gave birth to rock n’ roll. Benny Lipson on bass in the nominal role of Perkins’s “Brother Jay,” and Lonn Hayes on drums round out the band.

Garrett Forrestal has the flashiest role as the hot-tempered, unapologetically cocky Lewis, the young up-and-comer who has the most to prove, yet certain he is destined for greatness. Whether he’s making sly moves on Dyanne, Presley’s girlfriend (a vocally impressive Summer Nicole Greer who absolutely murders “Fever” in a good way) or exchanging acid wisecracks with Perkins, Mr. Forrestal’s Lewis has a brash goofball charm, and his thrashing keyboard style is an impressive approximation of Mr. Lewis’ febrile dexterity (Real Wild Child, Great Balls of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin’).

Mr. Riddle’s role as Perkins could be seen as the easiest: he’s not the top-shelf legend the others are, or the hardest, for the same reason, making his character easier to improvise. With his serious eyes leering beneath dancing eyebrows, Mr. Riddle is an exciting singer and does a fine job of conjuring Perkins’s jangling rockabilly guitar style (Matchbox, Who Do You Love? My Babe).

Mr. Benet’s handsome baby face with his smooth crooner’s voice, vocal mannerisms and hips with a perpetual twitch has the young Presley down pat. Despite his national fame, Presley, at the time the show is set, had been chastened by a disastrous stand in Las Vegas (one of the show’s funniest in-jokes), where he opened for Shecky Greene, and Mr. Benet’s performance is inflected with a gentle diffidence suggesting the insecure kid inside the teen idol (That’s Alright Mama, Long Tall Sally, Hound Dog).

Mr. Simpson gives the most nuanced and developed performance as the laid-back Cash, gentle spirited and troubled at having to break with the man who made his career. Mr. Simpson proves his bona fides very well and has the ability to channel Cash’s midnight-hued voice to the core, and his cool, idiomatic performances of Cash’s songs received the foremost responses to theatre-goers and admirers (Sixteen Tons, Folsom Prison Blues, Ghost Riders in the Sky).

The splashy encore, when the plot is finished and the guys don their glittery suits, whips the crowd into a predictable frenzy. But for me the most rewarding moments in the show were the more casual ones, when the four singers joined together to harmonize on those spirituals. These were among the songs actually played at this impromptu gig, and they give the strongest indication of the magic that must have taken place as four great musicians with troubled lives and complicated careers came together to forget everything but what they loved to do most: express the riotous joy, beauty and sadness of life in songs that shoot straight for the soul.

MUSICAL THEATRE WEST & EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR/PRODUCER PAUL GARMAN PRESENTS, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. With Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux; Original Concept and Direction by Floyd Mutrux; Inspired by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins; Direction by Tim Seib; Musical Direction by David Lamoureux; Technical Director Kevin Clowes; Scenic Designer Derek McLane; Lighting Designer Brandon Baruch; Sound Designer Julie Ferrin; Hair/Wig Designer Anthony Gagliardi; Stage Manager Phil Gold; Assistant Stage Manager Cameron Turner.

CAST: Carl Perkins - Will Riddle (Ragtime); Johnny Cash - David Elkin Simpson (SAG-AFTRA/Equity); Jerry Lee Lewis - Garrett Forrestal (Grease); Elvis Presley - LJ Benet (Ring of Fire); Dyanne - Summer Nicole Greer (Ain’t Misbehavin’); Jay “Brother Jay” Perkins - Benny Lipson (Herbie Hancock/Idina Menzel); W.S. “Fluke” Holland - Lonn Hayes (Saturday Night Live); Sam Phillips - Adam Poole (The 1940s Radio Hour).

Musical Theatre West's production of Million Dollar Quartet premiered at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center on April 12th and will run through April 28th with a special ASL-interpreted performance on Friday, April 19. Tickets start at $20 and are available for purchase by phone at 562-856-1999 or online at Running time: one hour, 45 min. with one intermission.

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

Photos courtesy of Victori Solutions


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