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Review: That day Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all jammed together...

By Sam Hurwitt

Posted: 09/8/2017 10:55am


On Dec. 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis all happened to stop by the Sun Records studio at the same time and starting jamming together. Although their jam session was written up in the papers at the time, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the resulting recordings were released commercially as the “Million Dollar Quartet.”

The musical of the same name that kicks off Center Repertory Company’s 50th season is a heavily fictionalized recreation of that event, or perhaps more accurately an idealized version.

This “Million Dollar Quartet” originally premiered in Florida 50 years after the event it portrays and later went on to play Broadway and London’s West End. There’s also a smaller Palo Alto Players production opening at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre while the Center Rep run plays in Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts.

Writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux add a little biographical context about where each performer is at that point in his career. Lewis, for instance, is still a relative unknown, brought in to play piano on a recording session for Perkins, who’s looking for his next big hit after “Blue Suede Shoes.”

There’s a tiny bit of a plot around legendary record producer Sam Phillips having a big decision to make, and about the performers whose careers he shaped now outgrowing his small but revolutionary label. There’s a bit of clashing egos and simmering resentments to add some drama, but it doesn’t amount to much.

Taking place inside Josh Smith’s impressively detailed recording studio set, the story is narrated by a reminiscing Phillips, played with avuncular amiability by Michael Ray Wisely. A charismatic Brittany Danielle sings a few numbers (including a sultry “Fever”) as Dyanne, a mostly fictional singer girlfriend of Elvis, who did in fact bring a dancer girlfriend along on his visit that day.

The emphasis is, rightly, on the music in this jukebox musical celebrating the electrifying early days of rock ’n’ roll. Only a few of the songs in the show seem to have actually been in the original jam session. Here they’re largely a collection of hits designed to give each of the stars a chance to shine.

And shine they do. Assembled from hither and yon around the country, all four of the titular performers have been involved in past productions of the musical. Director Hunter Foster, who played Sam Phillips in the Broadway production, has helmed the show a half-dozen times. All the actors play their own instruments, so they don’t just have to reasonably replicate the stars’ stage personae; they have to be able to play like them too. Drummer Ken Bergmann and bassist Michael Price (as Perkins’ brother) provide deft and energetic backup.

Music director John Michael Presney is a forceful, intense Carl Perkins with brawny, roaring guitar licks. Sky Seals exudes somber gravitas as Johnny Cash, with a rich deep voice and loose-strumming guitar style. Trent Rowland is an understated, youthful Elvis, but he has the moves. Sean McGibbon steals the show with humor and thunderous piano playing as the cocky and hyper-animated Jerry Lee Lewis.

The musical performances are strong throughout, but they really catch fire during a long curtain call that gives each of the foursome a solo song on which to shine. Performed concert style, this last part puts all rudiments of story aside to just revel in rock ’n’ roll, and ultimately that’s what the show does best. It’s not so much an attempt to re-create what it actually might have been like when these four greats came together as it is a celebration of how cool it is that it happened at all.



"Million Dollar Quartet" Lives up to its name, at Center REP, Walnut Creek


Escott & Mutrux Construct Riveting Musical Time Machine

By Rosa Del Duca

Posted: 09/10/2017


The lights come up inside Sun Records, which used to be an auto body shop. The black and white checkered floor is worn and discolored in spots. An unassuming Christmas tree stands in the corner, draped with tinsel. Four microphones stand by a piano, an electric guitar and amp, a hollow-body jazz guitar, and full drum kit. Clocks and gold records gleam from above.

Sun Records Founder Sam Phillips (steadfast, agile Michael Ray Wisely) welcomes us to the historic night we are about to witness. On December 4, 1956, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all happen to be at Sun. And the epic jam session that ensues is considered one of the seminal moments of rock and roll.

Jerry Lee Lewis (incredible, coiled spring Sean McGibbon), with a shock of strawberry-blonde hair, kicks things off. Lewis is a loose cannon, a show-off, and an egomaniac. But damn, can he play the piano, even with his feet! Sparks fly when Perkins (compelling, expert lead guitarist John Michael Presney) arrives to record a few tracks with Lewis. Phillips plays referee until the two realize each other’s talent. They settle into a rollicking time, with Lewis jangling the keys like it’s an Olympic sport and Perkins dashing off riffs with ease.

Before the show starts, Artistic Director Michael Butler warns us we won’t believe our eyes and ears. The music is 100 percent live, 100 percent real. And he’s right. The sound coming out of these musicians is big and authentic and absolutely extraordinary. We’re having a ball watching Lewis and Perkins trade barbs and songs. But then, in walks Johnny Cash (talented Sky Seals) and things get even better—and deeper. The icing on the cake is Elvis (gifted Trent Rowland), who shows up with his girlfriend, Dyanne (sassy crooner Brittany Danielle), a lovely contrast to an otherwise all-male play.

There is more to “Million Dollar Quartet” than the magical music. Plot tension arises from secrets the stars are keeping from each other. The stakes are high. Each artist stands to lose something irreplaceable.

If you’re wondering whether they are going to play your favorite song, the answer is yes. Although “Quartet” packs in over two dozen hits, each feels fresh and new, tapping into some major nostalgia. Each musicians is fantastic in his/her own right and adept at channeling the musical legends they are cast to play, avoiding caricature.

Arguably, the best performances come during the encore, when the characters re-emerge in sparkling blazers to play one last song each. Even Phillips shows off his harmonica skills in the boot-stomping encore. And of course, showboat Lewis closes it all out, balancing on his piano bench with one leg high in the air while he pounds the keys, jumping on top of the instrument and playing behind his back, like a true star. After all, Lewis once set his piano on fire and played through the flames to upstage a closing act.

“Million Dollar Quartet” is a fitting tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the Lesher Center—and Center REP does a great job. I sat three seats down from a woman who was there on the opening night, fifty years ago:

“Trade me seats so you can talk to Sally,” her date said to a woman down the row, as everyone was settling in.

“I don’t want to talk to anybody,” Sally said. “I want to go to sleep.”

Did Sally get any sleep? Not a wink. Her eyes were riveted to the stage.



There's a "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" with Center REPertory Company's "Million Dollar Quartet"

By Jan Miller

Posted: 09/11/2017


Center Repertory Company’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet,” currently playing through October 6 at the Lesher Theater for the Arts (1601 Civic Drive) in Walnut Creek, CA., is the ultimate jukebox musical, featuring a cast of four terrific actor-musicians playing a bumper crop of 1950s hit songs and providing more energy than a idling hot rod. This quartet, along with Brittany Daniell who portrays Presley’s girlfriend, goes way beyond impersonation.

Carl Perkins, the 'King of Rockabilly,' superbly played by John Michael Presney, plays the guitar while at the same time singing in Perkins’ hillbilly twang, keeping one leg planted on the floor while shooting the other out in every manner imaginable.

Elvis Presley, played by Trent Rowland, shows off his gyrations and leg vibrations perfectly.

Johnny Cash, played to a deep-voice perfection by Sky Seals, is perhaps the most convincing of the four, not just because of his perfect tone, but also because of his mannerisms. If you close your eyes you almost feel as if Johnny Cash himself is performing on stage.

Last, but certainly not least, a young, up-and-coming Jerry Lee Lewis, played by Sean McGibbon, is the most wired of the group, jiggling and moving, even leaping over the bench onto the piano, playing the keys backward as he tears into such songs as “Real Wild Child” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

“Million Dollar Quartet” takes its inspirations from a real one night-incident. On December 4, 1956, these four founding fathers of rock and roll, had an impromptu musical jam session at Sun Studios in Memphis, the very place where each of these four legends’ careers began. “Million Dollar Quartet” then uses this event as the background to perform a medley of some of the greatest hits ever, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “That’s All Right, Mama,” “Hound Dog,” etc. Producer Sam Phillips (played by Michael Ray Wisely) had the smarts to record it, and a local reporter who was called and sat in on the session headlined his newspaper article, which ran the next day, “Million Dollar Quartet.”

When the four take the stage to take their final bow, the audience rises to the occasion to give a standing ovation. These four “legends” then belt out four more numbers while the audience remains standing, shaking, and dancing throughout the finale with untold enthusuam. What a great ending to a great evening of rock and roll! It’s definitely worth seeing again.

For tickets or more information on the must-see production of “Million Dollar Quartet” please phone (925) 943-7469 or visit www.CenterREP.org.


Curtain Calls by Sally Hogarty: 'Million dollar' hit of legendary jam session


By Sally Hogarty

Posted: 09/12/2017


Center Repertory has a million-dollar hit on its hands with the current production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” Running through Oct. 6, at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center, this is a show not to be missed!

Directed by Hunter Foster, who played Sam Phillips in the 2010 Broadway premiere, the musical chronicles an impromptu jam session on Dec. 4, 1956, at Sun Record Studios in Memphis, between Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

Sun Records owner Sam Phillips discovered and produced each of the four, taking them from unknowns to stars. In fact, Phillips, Presley and Lewis were among the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s charter inductees.

Considered a seminal moment in rock ‘n’ roll, the session happened by pure chance. Perkins had come to Phillips to record some new material. Phillips brought in unknown piano player Jerry Lee Lewis to play along. A 21-year-old Elvis Presley, formerly with Sun Records, arrived with his girlfriend to drop off a Christmas present, with Johnny Cash also dropping by to listen in on the recording session. Before long, the four musicians began jamming and Phillips had the sense to record it!

Foster pulled together an incredibly talented cast capable of acting, singing and playing up a storm. John Michael Presney, who also performed in “Million Dollar Quartet’s” first national and international tour, is a wonderfully petulant Carl Perkins. The ripping lead guitarist is also the music director.

Sky Seals seems to be channeling Johnny Cash with his voice, attitude and guitar style — a wonder to behold. Meanwhile Sean McGibbon plays a mischievous, full of bravado Jerry Lee Lewis that somehow comes off very likeable — maybe it’s the red pants! Anyway, McGibbon knows how to tickle the ivories whether he’s using his hands, feet or other anatomical parts! And, finally, Trent Rowland manages to catch a fragility and vulnerability as Elvis Presley, that is when not knocking out one great hit piece of music after another.

Musical numbers include “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Great Balls of Fire” and many more. Brittany Danielle as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne heats up the stage with a great rendition of “Fever,” which includes singing while seated on the stand-up bass played by Michael Price. Ken Bergmann rounds out the cast as Fluke, the drummer.

Josh Smith designed a dynamite set capturing the Sun Records recording studio circled by offices and beautifully lit by Kirk Bookman. Lauren Roark designed the 1950’s costumes, which included Lewis’ great red pants and a sizzling hot outfit for Danielle.

For tickets to a night you won’t soon forget, call 925-943-SHOW (925-943-7469) or go to www.lesherartscenter.org.


By Charles Jarrett

Posted: September 13, 2017

On December 24, Christmas Eve in 1956, Sam Phillips experienced one of the most exhilarating and frustrating evenings in his life. Four country and rock and roll music legends, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, gathered in his Sun Records music studio and engaged in an impromptu jam session.

This impromptu jam session is “The Million Dollar Quartet,” the current production by the Center Repertory Company, running through Oct. 6 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. “The Million Dollar Quartet” becomes more than just an evening of celebrating music by four great rockabilly musicians. The tale also dwells on the great poignancy of the personal involvement between Phillips and these young men while he steers their talents into musical styles that were uniquely their own.

The show explains how and why Phillips, who actually discovered and promoted Elvis Presley, had to sell his Presley contract to RCA records in 1955 (for $35,000) in order to save his company from financial collapse.

This was a special day for Phillips, as the four men were for the first time all together at once in his small-town recording studio where he was passionately hoping to persuade them to renew their contracts.
On that Christmas Eve evening, Phillips was purportedly interviewing Jerry Lee Lewis, a 20-year-old Louisiana pianist/vocalist who had made his first rock and roll demo recording just two years earlier. I say purportedly because the musical is not exactly accurate historically. In that first year with Phillips, Lewis’s distinctive piano style had actually stood out as a prelude for other Sun artists, including Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”) and Johnny Cash (“Cry! Cry! Cry!”).

That same December evening, Elvis dropped in on Phillips to pay a social visit while Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks with Lewis. Johnny Cash also happened to be in the studio just to watch Perkins work his magic on his music. The four started an impromptu jam session and Phillips’s audio engineer, Jack Clement, deliberately left the tape running. Those recordings were eventually released in Europe in 1981 as “The Million Dollar Quartet” and were revamped in 1990 when a few more tracks were found.

Artistic Director Michael Butler knows great musicals and how to make them work superbly in the Margaret Lesher Theater. The talented performers are simply incredible. They are John Michael Presney as Carl Perkins, Sky Seals as Johnny Cash, Sean McGibbon as Jerry Lee Lewis and Trent Rowland as Elvis Presley. Others in this production are Brittany Danielle as Elvis’s girlfriend, Dyanne, Michael Ray Wisely as Phillips, Ken Bergmann as Fluke and Michael Price as Jay. Hunter Foster is the director along with John Michael Presney as the musical director.

This is a truly excellent production. I loved this terrific rockabilly musical evening! Tickets may be purchased by going to www.CenterREP.org or by calling 943-SHOW (7469).