Updated: Mar 25
Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On!
Once upon a time there was a Memphis pied piper named Sam Phillips, who lured farmhands and truckdrivers into his hole-in-the-wall Sun Records studio and discovered music stars like Presley, Cash, Roy Orbison and others. On Dec. 4, 1956, four of his boys — Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis—congregated for an impromptu jam session, with recording equipment running. This chance get-together was dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet, although only Presley was thus far fully on the national radar (thanks in part to his appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” three months earlier).
Over the years, the session grew legendary, with parts of that historic studio tape eventually released in Europe in 1981 with 17 tracks. A few years later more tracks were discovered and circulated as “The Complete Million Dollar Session.” In 1990, the recordings were released in the United States as “Elvis Presley - The Million Dollar Quartet,” and was considered a seminal moment in rock ‘n roll. Finally, the homonymous jukebox musical dramatizing the event opened on Broadway in 2010, garnering three Tony Award nominations and spawning a West End production and a U.S tour.
Now, this dazzling, raucous, crowd-pleasing spectacle, poised delicately between a musical and a revue, is being presented by La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts & McCoy Rigby Entertainment, in association with Gershwin Entertainment, delivering 21 songs of the era at full volume and with relentless energy. Directed by Tim Seib (“The Secret Garden”) and written by music historian Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux (the latter of whom made the marvelous and rarely seen 1978 film “American Hot Wax”), “Million Dollar Quartet” runs through February 13th, providing knockout performances in a partially-fictionalized version.
Narrating the show, Sam Phillips (Sean Casey Flanagan; “Blood on my Mother’s Apron”) steps forward 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 fired up by the combustible fusing of two strains of music, country and rhythm and blues, each helping to influence the birth of a seismic new age genre called rock ‘n roll.
As Carl Perkins, actor musician Nathan Burke (“Twelfth Night”) is edgy, sexy, angry and brutal in the hillbilly jokes he makes at Lewis' expense, and by this time had already met success with the smash hit, "Blue Suede Shoes." He has just been eclipsed by Elvis for the same record, holding a grudge, and can’t seem to get back in the spotlight. He had come into the studio that day to record a revamped version of an old blues song, "Matchbox," as a possible follow-up hit. Phillips wanted to try to ensure that by fattening up his sparse rockabilly instrumentation, and had brought in his latest acquisition, 20-year old Jerry Lee Lewis (dead-ringer Trevor Dorner; “Murder for Two”), still unknown outside of Memphis, to play piano (at the time, a Wurlitzer Spinet) on the Perkins session and add his soon-to-be legendary flaming keyboard licks.
Lewis was a rebellious hillbilly with a lot of controversial life experience already, having been married twice (with the first underage and the second beginning before the first ended) and coming out of a family with a convict father and the well-known preacher cousin, Jimmy Swaggart. Both Swaggart and Lewis were piano aficionados. Lewis's first Sun single, “Crazy Arms,” would be released a few days later, but it was his 1957 electrifying hit "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" that shot him to fame worldwide.
Sometime in the early afternoon, 21-year-old Elvis Presley (Jacob Barton; “Grease”), a former Sun artist now with RCA Victor, arrives at the studio, accompanied by girlfriend, Dyanne (Taylor Kraft; “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”). Shortly afterward, a young Johnny Cash (Steven Lasiter; “The Buddy Holly Story”) drops by at Phillips' request. Cash had already broken through to the big time, but his contract is about to expire. The ever-genial Phillips, played with country-boy charm by Mr. Flanagan, uses the presence of Elvis to try to entice Cash to forget about the corporate giants of RCA Victor and Columbia and sign a contract extension with Sun.
All of which is smoothly integrated into the flow of the jam session, but is incidental to the real purpose of the show, which is to let the performers cut loose on a hit parade of early favorites, providing the audience with blast after blast of sweet nostalgia.
Mr. Burke’s role as Perkins is top-shelf with the legend’s cool rebel eyes, leering beneath dancing eyebrows, and does a fine job of conjuring Perkins’s jangling rockabilly guitar style. His “Blue Suede Shoes” rocked the house, and his end of show encore, “See You Later, Alligator,” gave us a final example of his genius.
Singer-guitarist Jacob Barton as young, new rock star Elvis Presley has an aw-shucks shyness about him that only evaporates when he's singing. With his smooth southern sound and easy-twitching hips, he has all the requisite mannerisms of a young Presley down pat with songs like “That’s All Right, Mama,” “Long Tall Sally,” and "Hound Dog."
Mr. Lasiter gives a nuanced performance as the stoic, laid-back Cash, at once gentle spirited and troubled at having to break with the man who made his career. His excellent channeling of Cash’s midnight-hued voice, and his oxygenating, idiomatic performances of Cash’s songs received some of the strongest responses by the audience, growling out "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line," Sixteen Tons" and "Riders in the Sky" in a suitably Cash-like warble. "My mama loves that song," Lewis tells Cash about ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ It reminds her of my daddy."
Meanwhile, wild honky-tonk pianist Jerry Lee Lewis pounds out “Real Wild Child” like you’ve never heard before and brings the house down with “Great Balls of Fire.” Cash later wrote in his autobiography that "no one wanted to follow Jerry Lee, not even Elvis.” Mr. Dorner plays the flashy role with relish, high energy, good comic timing, and impeccable piano skills.
Rounding out the principals are Taylor Kraft’s sexy Dyanne, who holds her own among the boys quite nicely with a sultry take of "Fever," popularized more widely by Peggy Lee in 1958, and "I Hear You Knockin'," a hit for Gale Storm in 1955 before a successful cover by Dave Edmunds in 1971. And every song featured excellent bass work by Carl’s brother Jay Perkins (Justin Bendel; “Forever Plaid”) and Fluke, the drummer (Jon Rossi; “A Night with Janis Joplin”), who have both toured with “Million Dollar Quartet” for years.
Director Seib deserves much acclaim for the clever and canny job keeping the action going at crackerjack pace. The team of Steve Royal and Adam Koch also does well in their portrayal of a recording studio that used to be an auto parts store, with classic background touches, signs and props; Jeffrey Meek provides perfectly conceived costumes that breathe authenticity and character; and Kirk Bookman dazzles with his lighting, delivering lush images in high-quality spectra, especially in the final concert section. No sound designer was listed, but sound was crisp, dynamic and at just the right volume.
CAST: JACOB BARTON as Elvis Presley; STEVEN LASITER as Johnny Cash; TREVOR DORNER as Jerry Lee Lewis; NATHAN BURKE as Carl Perkins; SEAN CASEY FLANAGAN as Sam Phillips; TAYLOR KRAFT as Dyanne; JUSTIN BENDEL as Brother Jay; JON ROSSI as Fluke. FEATURING OVER 20 ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HITS INCLUDING: BLUE SUEDE SHOES • I WALK THE LINE • WHO DO YOU LOVE? • FOLSOM PRISON BLUES • THAT’S ALL RIGHT • SIXTEEN TONS • HOUND DOG • DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE • PEACE IN THE VALLEY • MATCHBOX • GREAT BALLS OF FIRE • SEE YOU LATER, ALLIGATOR
CREW: Director TIM SEIB; Producer TODD GERSHWIN; Producing Artistic Director BT McNICHOLL; Scenic Designer STEVE ROYAL and ADAM KOCH; Costume Designer JEFFREY MEEK; Lighting Designer KIRK BOOKMAN; Technical Director KEVIN CLOWES; Production Stage Manager KENDALL STEVENS; General Manager PATTI McCOY JACOB.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, McCoy Rigby Entertainment and Gershwin Entertainment present “Million Dollar Quartet,” opening January 21st and running through February 13th, Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm; Sundays at 1:30pm & 6:30pm. Originally developed and produced by Relevant Theatricals, John Cossette Productions and Northern Lights Inc. Based on a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. Approximately one hour, forty minutes without intermission. La Mirada Theatre is located at: 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada, CA 90638. Tickets can be purchased by calling (714) 994-6310, or purchase online at: https://lamiradatheatre.com/current_events/broadway_series/million_dollar_quartet/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jason Niedle