THERE IS A “WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN” GOING ON IN THE SOUTH BAY PREMIERE OF ‘MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET’
In 1956 Sun Records in Memphis hosted a remarkable recording session with four icons of early rock 'n' roll. The legendary Sun Studios is now open at the Palo Alto Players as they begin their 87th season with the South Bay regional premiere of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. Legends Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins are now on stage through October 1st. Right from the classic opening number “Blue Suede Shoes,” PAP’s production is nothing short of a roof-raising, foot-stomping, guitar-strumming, bass-power, hand-clapping celebration of American rock ‘n’ roll. It is amazing how the Lucie Stern stage can hold all that energy and the love for rock ‘n’ roll that overflows this fall in Palo Alto.
The Quartet is directed by Jeffrey Bracco, with the dynamic music direction by Katie Coleman. Bracco, Broadway By The Bay favorite, makes his Palo Alto Players’ directorial debut at PAP “I've always been a huge fan of rock 'n' roll and this show is about some of the greatest pioneers of rock,” says Bracco. “there aren't a lot of shows like Million Dollar Quartet where you have the actors not only singing but playing their own instruments for an entire show. We've got an immensely talented group of local actors.”
Famed music producer Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, was the place on Dec. 4, 1956, the four godfathers of rock and roll had an all-star jam session that forever dubbed Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley the "Million Dollar Quartet." Individually, they're some of the most tortured and scandal-ridden artists of the 1950s.“MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET,” is co-authored by music historian Colin Escott and film producer Floyd Mutrux, they create what might have happened on that historic day. MILLION DOLLAR premiered in Florida 50 years after the event and later went on to play Broadway and London’s West End. This 90 minute fireball of a show plays without an intermission; it isn’t just a musical revue or cliché jukebox musical, although its 21 numbers include chart-toppers like “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “See You Later, Alligator” and “Riders In The Sky.”
The performances are not painted impersonations; they are authentic interpretations of vocals, style and movement. The four men are two dimensional with down-home recollections of growing up Southern poor and with enough dirt kickin’ personality. Each actor is a musicians in top form, the Quartet features: Carl Perkins played by the awe inspiring Tarif Pappu, Johnny Cash is played by the splendid Greg Zema, Jerry Lee Lewis is covered by the terrific Nick Kenrick and King Elvis Presley is played by the superb Jaake Margo. Record producer Sam Phillips is played by the likable Jeremy Ryan and Elvis’ girl pal Dyanne is played by the vibrant Jessica Lafever. The show opens with the company blasting "Blue Suede Shoes," written by one member of this group and made forever famous by the King.
Elvis Presley had already scored hits and was a half made movie star on some B pictures. Carl Perkins was looking for a follow-up to his hit song "Blue Suede Shoes," and Johnny Cash had unprecedented crossover appeal among country and rock fans. New to Sun was a brash young kid keyboard-pounder from Louisiana who wanted to make sure the other three understood that he, Jerry Lee Lewis, was the next big thing. The four all meet together in the studio that December day at the label that gave them their start.
Ryan as entrepreneur/record producer Phillips the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, carries the narrative history breaking the 4th wall. He tells the emotional story of financial costs of losing the talent he discovered to the big record companies like RCA and Columbia. “Million Dollar Quartet” peeks presciently at the billion-dollar business rock ‘n’ roll became, and how it forever changed American pop culture. The quartet and Phillips are joined by Elvis’ girlfriend, played by Jessica LaFever who delivers a knockout “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin’,”. The dynamic Ryan Stohs as Fluke the studio drummer and the sharp and talented Daniel Mugulia as Perkins’ brother, the bass player are both foolproof. The members in the band easily get lost with the powerhouse four men in front of them, but Mugulia on his stand up bass is a standout.
The marvelous Tarif Pappu is pitch perfect as Carl Perkins. All the men’s dialect coached by Kimily Conkie bring their southern twang to each icon. Tappu is a rock star who off stage has his own band and brings his winning talent to this cast. With his infectious energy as Perkins and his lock of hair bouncing to the power of his ideal voice steals the show and the spotlight from the King. As Tarif plays the guitar, and owns its rock history he brings charismatic passion to his performance. Pappu sings "Who Do You Love?" and "See You Later Alligator." and you only want more.
Photos by Joyce Goldschmid.
A frustrated Perkins is still angry at Presley for singing his song "Blue Suede Shoes" on The Ed Sullivan Show while wise mouthed Lewis cracks an off hand joke about his marital affairs (Lewis was married a total of seven times, once to his teenage cousin). The only friction among the quartet is a bit of jealousy but their respect for each other is evident. Kenrick as Jerry Lee Lewis is the other energy on stage as an acrobatic pianist. No matter who takes the spotlight, your eye can't help but be drawn downstage right to Kenrick’s solo piano where he displays a kind of musicianship that is an act of conscious creation. He is cocky, but he rightly earns the show's final encore of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," complete with Lewis' gymnastic moves.
Superstar Presley whose Sun contract was sold to RCA wants to come back to the homegrown outfit, while Lewis makes plans to be Sun's next big star. Margo as Presley brings his charm and classic moves to his performance of “That's All Right, and “Hound Dog”. Margo also shows off his excellent guitar and singing voice in the jaw-dropping “Long Tall Sally”.
The Quartet's main attraction is not its historical facts but its resurrection of these musical powerhouses. Including Zema’s performance as Johnny Cash dressed in black (costumes by Pat Tyler) and deep bass for his loyal renditions of "Sixteen Tons" and "I Walk the Line"; Zema delivers with proficiency and charisma in “Folsom Prison Blues” as the sold out opening night audience clapped and some sang along.
Director Bracco and Music expect Coleman orchestrates stage and music direction seamlessly. The one act evening's performances become more real with a soundstage setting designed by Sorensen authentic in many details. From the acoustic tile walls to the glassed-in recording studio, along with props master Scott Ludwig’s array of excellent instruments and gold records that cover the studio walls.
Pat Tyler’s costumes reflect each star’s personality and slick talent to the 50’s jackets and slick shoes and sleek red looK for Dyanne. Edward Hunter's lighting becomes a rock concert for the many encores and performance songs. Jeff Grafton's sound design included mics and stands, but my guess is that each actor was well wired for the perfect sound. Katie Coleman’s music direction had some great talents to blend and fill the Lucie Stern with their gem voices . Daniel Murguia and Ryan Stohs shine on bass and drums, and the cast all had the slick hair styles provided by hair dresser Stephanie Baumen’s just right 50’s hair gel including Johnny Cash’s freshly dyed black hair.
Each solo performance is a crowd-pleaser, but the group's moments as an actual "Million Dollar Quartet" are the most satisfying particularly their spot-on harmonies to "Down By the Riverside," which actually made it into the 1956 session; the chance to see Elvis sing backup is worth a million dollars alone. All of which is not to intellectualize “Million Dollar Quartet,” but to emphasize how smart Palo Alto Players production is at being so informed, so passionate, so darn entertaining about the music it celebrates. As PAP begins its 87th Season with an impressive line up of plays and musicals - this evening of 50’s rock is the perfect way to begin your fall theatre season. Next up is PETER PAN that opens November 3rd, in the meantime don’t miss MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET.
Palo Alto Players Presents
‘MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET’
By Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Directed by Jeffrey Bracco, Music Director Katie Coleman
Artistic Director Patrick Klein
Must Close Oct. 1
Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
For tickets, visit paplayers.org or call 650.329.0891.
Running time: 90 minutes, one intermission
Photos by Joyce Goldschmid.
ORIGINAL RECORDING FROM DEC 4 1956
CLIP FROM REHEARSAL