It was a meetup that made rock ‘n’ roll history. Sun Records, Memphis, Dec. 4, 1956. An impromptu jam session by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Over the previous year, the first three had become success stories of visionary record producer Sam Phillips. Lewis was new to his stable; by the end of the evening, he’d be the only one left with Phillips, who discovered and shaped all of them.
But though he was sad to see his “boys” leave for bigger fields and greener pastures (RCA or Columbia Records), Phillips would go on to produce Roy Orbison, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty and others. And he was an early investor in Holiday Inn Hotels. Though he lived until 2003, Phillips sold Sun in 1969; the studio is still in existence, as Sun Entertainment Corporation.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is a recording of that 1956 jam, which was released in 1981. It mainly featured the country and gospel music the four poor Southerners had grown up singing.
But in 2008, that title became the name of a musical, by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, that dramatized the original session. The 2010 Broadway production was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Several of the originally recorded numbers appear in the show: the gospel song, “Peace in the Valley,” and Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” which, we’re told, he was forced to change from “Brown-Skinned Handsome Man.”
Most of the musical comprises a catalogue of the foursome’s individual hits: from Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” (co-opted and made famous by Elvis, much to Perkins’ chagrin); Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Sixteen Tons” and “I Walk the Line”; Elvis’ “That’s All Right,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Memories are Made of This”; and Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
The national tour of the show came through San Diego, at the Civic Theatre, in 2013. But in the more intimate Avo Playhouse setting in Vista, where Lamb’s Players Theatre stages North County productions, it’s a far more satisfying experience.
The small, simple studio, studded with acoustic tile and gold records, with a recording booth upstage and an outdoor porch stage left, is nicely re-created (Mathys Herbert). All the floorspace is taken up by the superb singer/musicians and their backup drummer (Brian Dall) and standup bassist (Mackenzie Leighton).
Walker Brinskele’s Elvis has those pelvis-swiveling moves (though he sports pretty baggy pants for the knee-knocking, hip-twisting “Elvis the Pelvis” moves he was known for in the early days). Brett Benowitz plays a mean electric guitar as Perkins. And Ben Van Diepen, who serves as musical director, is once again playing the wild-haired Wildman Lewis, a marvel of shameless bravado and outrageous piano-playing (feet and all).
They all evoke the R&R superstars. But it’s Charles Evans Jr. who looks and sounds so much like Johnny Cash, it’s uncanny.
Lance Arthur Smith has just the right folksy feel as Sam Phillips, so proud and possessive of his boys. He’s the narrator, event organizer and ultimately, the object of Elvis’ proposed toast: “To the Father of Rock and Roll.”
Elvis did, in fact, bring a girlfriend to the studio — Marilyn Evans — but it’s not clear whether she joined the guys in song. Here, his Plus-One is the fictional Dyanne (Katie Sapper, who looks red-dress hot and does a sizzling version of Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell’s “Fever” and Dave Bartholomew and Pearl King’s “I Hear You Knockin’”).
The solos are great and the harmonies are terrific. Director Kerry Meads keeps the pace lively, and underscores the emotional aspects of the event: the competitions and resentments as well as the sheer joy of jamming with consummate fellow musicians.
For a fleet 90 minutes, you feel like you were there, too, and can share in that joy.
- The Lamb’s Players Theatre production of“Million Dollar Quartet” has been extended through Sept. 1 at the Avo Playhouse, 303 Main Street in Vista
- Performances are Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Running Time: 90 min.
- Tickets ($28-$78, with half-price seats for active military, youth age 3-17 and adults aged 18-34 are at 619-437-6000 or lambsplayers.org
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.