Produced by: Palo Alto Players
Directed by: Jeffrey Bracco
Music direction by: Katie Coleman
Featuring: Jeremy Ryan, Tarif Pappu, Greg Zema, Nick Kenrick, Jaake Margo, Jessica LaFever and bassist Daniel Murguia and drummer Ryan Stohs
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
When: September 15 through October 1, 2017
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Tickets: $25-$55 (discounts available for seniors, educators, students, military, groups of 10 or more). Call 650-329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.
'Million Dollar Quartet' rocks!
totally a blast in Palo Alto Players production
Like that rock 'n' roll music, Bunky?
Like to party?
Don't miss "Million Dollar Quartet," being staged by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre through October 1, 2017. It is a blast and a half, and gets several well-earned standing ovations during about 90 minutes of fabulous music-making.
This show, "inspired" by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, does an amazing thing: It puts a cast on stage that can actually play their instruments, live, and they take us through some of the most important tunes of early, white-skinned, rock 'n' roll.
It's the story of an event that actually happened. On Dec. 4, 1956, Carl Perkins was at Sun Records in Memphis, to record what became one of his hits — "Matchbox" — and on hand, thanks to Sun founder Sam Phillips, was Jerry Lee Lewis, playing piano. And in walked another Phillips protégé, Johnny Cash, and one of Phillips' former artists, Elvis Presley (and his girlfriend at the time).
A jam session occurred, and it was recorded, and eventually became an album, "Million Dollar Quartet."
Floyd Mutrux got the idea to turn it into a play, and with book by Colin Escott, did so, and what a blast it is in Palo Alto.
The play kind of warps the history and timing of the actual events, but the essential truth is there, and the bending of facts doesn't hurt much.
In his program notes, Palo Alto Players Artistic Director Patrick Klein said when he first thought of casting this play with actors who could play their own instruments, he thought it would be hard to find them. "Boy, was I wrong," he said.
Klein and the show's excellent director Jeffrey Bracco, found a group of six actors who really make the play pop. All of the fellows who play the key parts — Nick Kenrick as Jerry Lee Lewis, Tarif Pappu as Carl Perkins, Jaake Margo as Elvis Presley, and Greg Zema as Johnny Cash — play their own instruments.
Margo and Zema mainly just strum guitars lightly during their key songs, but Pappu is an excellent, powerful guitarist, who does more than give justice to Perkins, who was one of the first real rock guitarists. It could be argued that Pappu is better than Perkins was, simply because so much has happened with that instrument since, and Pappu knows that stuff. Perkins actually started by plucking a string attached to a broom handle and a bucket, or somesuch, and invented most of what he did — which was good stuff.
And Kenrick is fabulous as Jerry Lee, not only playing some monster licks on the piano with brilliant musicianship, but also acting like the great entertainer, in his movements, his voice, and his crazy, leg-waving histrionics at the keyboard.
Kenrick is the best of the men singers, in recreating Jerry Lee Lewis's tunes, including "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."
Kenrick is a terrific actor who really commits to his roles. He was very, very funny, for instance, as Donkey in "Shrek," at Foothill Music Theatre. I'll be happy to see more of him on stage.
Pappu is OK at singing tunes as Perkins, including "Who Do You Love" and — especially — "See You Later Alligator," but his strength is in his guitar playing, and in his characterization of Perkins.
Perkins was known as a guy capable of violence, and Pappu brings that anger to the stage, reacting very badly, at first, to the presence of Jerry Lee Lewis. He didn't want a piano on his tunes. Bringing in Jerry Lee was Phillips' idea.
Margo moves well as Elvis, swiveling those knees and hips, and sings most of his tunes well, although "Memories Are Made of This" was not in a good key for him, and he couldn't get the words out with much strength as a result. But he nailed it, pretty much, with "Long Tall Sally" and "Hound Dog."
Zema just does not have that miles-deep voice that Johnny Cash had, but he does pretty well with what he does have. He does a very nice job with "Sixteen Tons," and is even more fun with "Riders in the Sky."
Some of the historical errors include that in the real event, Cash maybe didn't sing, at least recognizably. In "Cash: The Autobiography," he said he was farthest away from the microphone, and sang in a higher register to harmonize with Elvis. And it wasn't on this day, but a couple of years later, that he told Phillips that he was leaving Sun Records for Columbia.
But that makes for a better story, and for a little more drama, since a key to all this is Sam Phillips, who was the father of rock 'n' roll, in many ways.
For one thing, before Phillips found these four dirt-poor white boys and made them stars, he had recording some of the best ever black musicians, including B.B. King and Ike Turner. In fact, "Rocket 88," by Turner and Jackie Brenston, was recorded at Sun in 1951, and a lot of historians think of it as the first rock 'n' roll song.
This show mentions something the Phillips had actually said: That if he could find a white person who could sing like a black person, he could make a lot of money. That was back in the day when white teenagers might want to listen to Chuck Berry and others, but were afraid to buy the records.
With Elvis, Phillips famously found that white man who could sing like a black man. And Elvis sold a lot of records. Phillips, who was a master innovator in the studio, and helped Elvis find his sound (according to the play, he started out trying to sound like Dean Martin). Then, Phillips sold Elvis's contract to RCA. (The play says for $40,000; most historical sources say $35,000.) Phillips needed the money.
I like that when Jerry Lee and Perkins perform "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," in this show, that Elvis says, "Chuck told me that he wrote it 'Brown Skinned Handsome Man.'" A lot of the early rock 'n' roll tunes that were hits for white singers were written by black performers.
Jeremy Ryan is excellent as Phillips, drawling with that Southern charm but still sharing the anger when Perkins and Cash desert him for Columbia, which had a better, more reliable distribution system. He, essentially, narrates the story of Sun Records, and of that special day when an amazing jam session developed.
Beautiful Jessica LaFever, wearing a tight red dress and frequently shaking her booty and other parts, plays "Dyanne," Elvis's girlfriend at the time. She gets to sing "Fever," and does OK, but without the vocal steam of Peggy Lee; and does a knock-out job with "I Hear You Knocking."
What I liked best from LaFever was a smaller but more beautiful part, when she added some background vocalizations during "Riders in the Sky." Really raised the song to a higher level.
By the way, the woman who actually was at that jam session, and can be seen in the famous photograph from it (if not cropped out), was Marilyn Evans, whom Elvis met when she was a dancer in Las Vegas. You can see that photo here.
An excellent rhythm section of Daniel Murguia on bass and Ryan Stohs on drums made it all work. Something I really liked was them keeping a little bit of music going all the time, during Ryan's little asides, as he relates the history of Sun and the quartet. After a while, Kenrick joins in on piano, and eventually Pappu starts throwing in some guitar licks, and it is a delight to hear these fellows just making some light music.
Funny thing: A Fender Telecaster sits downstage from the beginning of the show, in front of what looks like an old tweed amplifier. Telecasters were pretty popular with country musicians especially back in those days. But this particular Telecaster — which belongs to Pappu — is never played during the show. Instead, Pappu was given a couple of Ibanez guitars that look a little like the Guild and Gibson guitars of the 1950s. Which would add way too much to the production costs for this show.
I missed the opening night (car troubles!) but went to the second show, the Sunday matinee, and the audience, with much gray hair in view, loved this show. And for good reason. It's more like a musical than just a revue, has a good story to tell, and delivers at least 16 tons of great rock 'n' roll music.
Hats off to Music Director Katie Coleman and Sound Designer Jeff Grafton. The music sounded significantly great, and everybody could be heard clearly. Scenic Designer Nikolaj Sorensen produced a very realistic looking Sun Studios. Properties Designer Scott Ludwig, for the most part, populated the studio properly; the only off note came from all the guitars having wireless set-ups. In 1956, guitar and microphone cables would have been all over the floor.
I liked the accents, which were properly Southern boy, and helped along by Dialect Coach Kimily Conkle.
Costume Designer Pat Tyler dressed all the musicians in the looks they each had at the time. Of pictures I have seen of Marilyn Evans, she wasn't wearing anything like that gorgeous red dress LaFever wears, but I ain't complainin'.
Email John Orr at email@example.com