A FOOT STOMPING TRIUMPH ROCK’S THE EAST BAY PREMIERE OF ‘MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET' IMMORTALIZES ROCK N ROLL HISTORY
My second visit to the historic Sun Studio in less than a week, and I only wanted more. I could probably see this show every week with a new cast and still be wowed. There aren't many musical moments bigger than the one that occurred on Dec. 4, 1956, when Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley – who were all in their early 20s at the time who came together for a jam session at Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tenn.
The Center Rep opens their 50th season and recreates that night in electrifying fashion in this rock power version of "MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET" that runs through October 8th. Thanks to an immensely talented cast, it doesn't take long for the audience to be pulled into the magic that is being made on this Walnut Creek stage. This version at the Margaret Lesher venue is the longer version, that includes an intermission and two extra songs and a bit more drama between the boys. But both shows are not to be missed.
Directed by Hunter Foster, a former member of the original Tony honored Broadway cast of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, he played Sam Phillips in 2010. Foster keeps the show moving and it is non stop music and personality. Local favorite music director is the riveting John Michael Presney who is also directly from the MDQ national tour; he is at home at the Center Rep appearing in many past shows. He has two hats in this keen production, he is also on stage as the marvelous Carl Perkins. His performance power on stage is overwhelming as he sings “Who Do You Love” and “Matchbox”. Presney gives Perkins his angry edge that he holds against the King Elvis for covering his “Blue Suede Shoes.”
The audience is made to feel like they are part of that moment, the interaction with the four icons had the front row audience cheering. Producer Phillips played by the accomplished Michael Ray Wisely who breaks the 4th wall to ask the sold out crowd questions about his all star boys.
Jerry Lee Lewis’ performances steal the evening, played by the charismatic Sean Mcgibbon, who is right off the national tour of MILLION. He brought the energy early with a unrestrained version of "Wild One", and stops the show with his cocky fun whenever he is center stage including in the show stopping “Great Balls of Fire.” McGibbon brings Lauren T Roark’s costume designs up front being the brightest dressed of the four in a slick red shirt and 50’s clean tan slacks. McGibbon is dazzling behind the piano and and is rousingly impressive in capturing Lewis' frantic stage antics.
The handsome Trent Rowland’s dead-on performance as 21 year old Presley shows he studied Elvis’ concert footage in order to give a performance as authentic as possible. Rowland like McGibbon has played the part in the past, and has a budding film career appearing in many feature films. Rowlands hyped “That’s All Right, and “Long Tall Sally” Elvis classics that dominate the jam session. The young Elvis arrives at the studio with his current girlfriend, the stunning Brittany Danielle she is sharp as she sings “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking” in the sleek wonderful stylish blue eye catching strapless dress designed by Roark.
Photos by Photo by Bethany Deal www.mellophoto.com
But standing taller and strong is the performance of Sky Seals' take on Johnny Cash. He embodies the sound and spirit of Cash, right down to his rich bass-baritone voice. Seals is also a pro in this role as this is his 5th time appearing as Johnny. He can easily pull off a solo show as Cash, his performance is spellbinding. “Folsom Prison Blues” brings the sold out crowd to clap and sing along. Seals comes out into the audience a few times to greet some of the seniors clapping along to the classic “I Walk The Line.”
Inside the detailed Sun Studio set with layered rooms and a full false ceiling designed by the clever Josh Smith, includes a full back room of recording gear and gold records. Smith also uses detailed neon lights and rows of air conditioning vents to give the studio that full authentic look. Props master Roger Anderson brings in holiday decorations, including a lighted tree, and he made sure all the main actors have cigarettes, and access to some high end audio gear. Brendan Aane’s sound design included both body mics and fully working classic vintage microphones and stands along with the mix of old school mic cords. The sound is booming and sets the Margaret Lesher Theatre on "rock n roll fire".
Jukebox musicals are often an excuse to overload baby boomer audiences with icon covers of beloved tunes, and that does happen in "MILLION" but when the gang gets going, they tear up the place, and the production has the pulse celebration of transporting you to a high energy, thrill of a great concert. Bringing millennials and Gen Z’ers to their feet along with their silver haired grandparents.
Director Foster visually handles the script's many sidebars, flashbacks and detailed narratives, most delivered by Rock Father Phillips, Wisely is dapper on stage dealing with the deadline to go to NY to work with his boy Elvis at RCA or stay at Sun.
Of course, these four Southern Baptist boys are more than impressive singing some gospel fare including a beautiful harmony version of “Peace in the Valley.” arranged by Presney. This longer version includes two more songs by Jerry Lee, Dyanne and Carl sing “Rockin Robin” and “I Shall Not Be Moved”. The snapping choreography in the novelty Perkins’ song “See You Later Alligator” was arranged by the boys and Foster
There are 24 songs jammed into this 100-minute two act show, from the flash-bang of Lewis dong "Real Wild Child" to the moving a-capella harmonies of "Down By the Riverside" and "Peace In The Valley” This musical features an incredible score of rock, gospel, R&B, and country hits that are still on the charts today, including: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Let's Have a Party.” .“MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET,” is co-authored by music historian Colin Escott and film producer Floyd Mutrux.
The production's “on fire” performance is McGibbon as Lewis, his aggressive playing seems sure to break both his piano and his fingers by the end of the production's three encore evening. Lewis, is the only remaining member who is still alive, and McGibbon smokes “Great Balls of Fire! With his floppy curly hair and high-octane antics on the piano, belting classics like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” while playing with his hands and feet. Superb if largely thankless work gets done by Michael Price who plays Perkins’ brother, Jay, and kills on the booming ‘slap’ style upright bass and first rate drummer Ken Bergmann as Fluke.
The lighting for this show needs to go from an authentic studio feel to later a rock show party and lighting designer Kirk Bookman brings it full throttle. Bookman also adds his mix of holiday lights and the back rooms of the studio glow, as well as the flashback moments down stage. I am sure I saw smoke coming from Lewis’ piano and Perkins’ many guitars. Apart from the music, it is the interaction between the characters that makes this production so entertaining and awe inspiring.
I was pleased to call Sept 2017 my month with two versions for MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET both filled with over the top brilliant talent and production teams. The only downside for the Center Rep fans is that this run is just about sold out, just a few seats remain. The Palo Alto version closes sooner but still has seats. Up next at Center Rep Company is THE LIAR a comedy costume romp that opens October 20th. In the meantime book your seats for the best party in the Bay Area and celebrate Season 50 at the CRC with this amazing cast and show.
CENTER REPERTORY COMPANY PRESENTS
‘MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET’
Book by Colin Escott, Music by Floyd Mutrux
Inspired by Elvis, Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis
Directed by Hunter Foster
Music Director John Michael Presney
Artistic Director Michael Butler
Must Close Oct. 6th
The Margaret Lesher Theatre, Walnut Creek
For tickets http://www.centerrep.org/
Running time: two hours with, one intermission
Photos by Photo by Bethany Deal www.mellophoto.com
ORIGINAL RECORDING FROM DEC 4 1956
Three questions with actor Michael Ray Wisely
who plays the Father of Rock n Roll SAM PHILLIPS
With; John Michael Presney* as Carl Perkins, Michael Ray Wisely* as Sam Phillips,
Brittany Danielle* as Dyanne, Trent Rowland* as Elvis Presley, and Sky Seals* as Johnny Cash
Craft Team; Directed by Hunter Foster, Music Direction by John Michael Presney*
Scenic Design by Josh Smith, Costume Design by Lauren T. Roark, Lighting Design by Kirk Bookman, Sound Design by Brendan Aane, Stage Managed by Leslie M. Radin*