If you could spend 90 minutes with any rock star alive or dead, who would you choose? How about four? In the jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet, we are transported to 1956, when Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley meet at Sam Phillip’s Sun Record Studios in Memphis.
Lamb’s Players’ authentic production at the Avo Playhouse in Vista has an outstanding multi-talented cast, and great balls of fire, it’s a terrific music concert loaded with personalities and trivia.
Like flies on the studio wall, we experience the historic recording session, when the four men are still in their 20s and ready to change American music forever.
Lance Arthur Smith portrays Sam Phillips like a proud southern father and tells the audience how he built his studio in an auto parts store. Mathys Herbert’s scenic design fuels the fantasy with dotted acoustic panels, a grimy sound booth, and electrical conduit.
Phillips won’t stop nurturing and investing in the young musicians and doesn’t want to work for anyone else. He hopes they’ll stick with his little label, but we know three will choose bigger fortunes with RCA and Columbia, and his teary eyes are heartfelt.
The book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux dramatizes the session with Phillips as actor and narrator, and the musical cast delivers believable dialogue as they collaborate and compete for attention.
Brett Benowitz channels Carl Perkins’ rockabilly guitar style, even upside down and backwards.
His bass player brother Jay (Mackenzie Leighton) is already there, and Carl is furious about recording with the new guy, Jerry Lee Lewis, a 21-year-old show boat piano player. Their squabbles may not be historically accurate, but they make for exciting theater.
As the wild man Jerry Lee Lewis, Ben Van Diepen is hyperactive and dangerous. With explosive physicality, he pounds on his piano with fists and feet, kicks his stool back, and spreads his legs in ways that would make Ed Sullivan faint. Van Diepen is also the musical director and in his first appearance with Lamb’s, he’s making a mark. Anyone in the first row will worry he may leap into their lap.
Elvis Presley, played by Walker Brinskele, is a shy boy still perfecting his hip swivels and grinding ballad voice. He swaggers in “Long Tall Sally, “and “That’s All Right.”
“Well, I Saw Uncle John with bald-headed Sally, He saw Aunt Mary coming and he ducked back in the alley, oh baby, Yea a ah baby…”
His voluptuous girlfriend Dyanne, played by Katie Sapper, sizzles in “Fever” and hits high notes in lovely harmonies when the group sings “Down by the Riverside” and “Peace in the Valley.”
Charles Evans Jr. plays Johnny Cash with remarkable depth from his rich bass tones and impeccable phrasing to his somber expressions and dark pompadour hair. His turn at “I Walk the Line,” includes those wonderful, eerie hums, which Cash used to get his pitch as the song changes keys several times. It was his first big hit, and speeded up at the urging of Phillips.
Cash wrote the song as a promise to his wife to stay faithful while on the road, which is a wincing chuckle because he and his next wife June Carter sang it together.
The Coronado-based Lamb’s Players Theatre heads up north to Vista for this revival, and it’s worth the drive. The show directed by Kerry Meads runs swiftly without intermission, and it feels like a documentary with cocky personalities, sparkling talent, and self-doubt.
Elvis worries that he was a flop in Vegas. Lewis swigs Coke, which sparks the legend of him sprinkling gasoline from a Coke bottle onto his piano while playing “Great Balls of Fire.”
Mackenzie Leighton on bass and Brian Dall on drums are the rhythmic glue, and Patrick Duffy’s sound design is solid. Jemima Dutra’s costumes are suitably vintage, except for Perkins who needs more structure, maybe a tie.
The actors are all excellent singers and musicians and pull us into their drama. A few awkward pauses, broken promises and secrets make it real and gritty. Granted, it is torture to sit still while listening to electric hits such as: “Long Tall Sally,” “Who Do You Love,” “Folsom Prison,” and “Great Balls of Fire.” You’ll have to wait for the bows to shake it baby.
Million Dollar Quartet presented by Lamb’s Players, at Avo Playhouse, 303 Main St. Vista, has been extended to Sept. 1, 2019.
The music of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins & Jerry Lee Lewis
by Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux
directed by Kerry Meads
musical direction by Ben Van Diepen