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‘Million Dollar Quartet’ rewinds Presley, Cash, Lewis, Perkins to their roots

Everybody knows how the story ended, especially as it concerned Elvis Presley in Las Vegas.

But “Million Dollar Quartet” rewinds it to the beginning, in a modest record studio in Memphis.

This Broadway hit is about legends, not “Legends,” based on the real jam session that brought Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis to Sun Studio on Dec. 4, 1956.

“The general population knows where these guys ended up, but they don’t really know where they began,” says Eric Schaeffer, director of the musical that settles into Harrah’s Las Vegas for an open-ended run starting Monday.

“They don’t have all those demons yet that they were all surrounded by,” he adds. “It’s that innocence that anything can happen, anything is possible.”

The fact that “Quartet” is now on the Strip – and that it actually displaces “Legends in Concert” (which moved to the Flamingo) – may create misconceptions that didn’t burden the musical on Broadway, or at tour stops such as The Smith Center for the Performing Arts last June.

“We always said the show is never an impersonation show,” Schaeffer says. “These guys can have characteristics of these characters but they’re not caricatures. It gives us that window to make it our own.”

“Rich Little is great. And he can sound just like Johnny Cash. But that’s not exactly what we want,” adds musical director Chuck Mead. This show is “more of an interpretation. It elevates it from tribute show to actual theatrical piece.”

“I think (on the tour) they were expecting more of a play than anything else,” says Martin Kaye, who plays Lewis and is the only actor who carries over from The Smith Center cast. “I think people who come and see the show on the Strip might be expecting more ‘entertainment,’ so to speak.”

And the edit for Harrah’s obliges them to a degree. It trims some dialogue out of the book by Floyd Mutrix and Colin Escott to spare all the songs in what was already a one-act show with no intermission.

“The music is what makes this show so special. Why cut out any of the songs?” Schaeffer says.

“It’s not a musical revue, but the music is the most important thing because that’s what it’s rooted in,” Kaye agrees. “That’s what the whole thing is about. It’s about this music and how it changed peoples lives, how it was revolutionary.”

The jam session creates a theatrical device to break “the fourth wall” and perform directly to the audience. Yet a balance has been preserved.

Benjamin Hale, who plays Cash, previously performed in “Phantom – The Las Vegas Spectacular.” Coming straight from that operatic Broadway hit, he says he was told to pull back a bit in rehearsals.

“This is a little more natural. It’s more like you’re a fly on the wall in a recording studio,” he says.

“It’s honest and it’s real, and I think that’s cool,” says Kaye, a Brit among the American members of the cast.

While Hale jumped in from a Broadway musical, Tyler Hunter has worked for “Legends” as Elvis Presley. And Kaye worked as a cruise ship musician, but had never auditioned for a traditional musical.

“Quartet” casts a wide net in auditions, but the common denominator is that everyone plays their own instruments. No one mimes the guitar while being covered by an offstage musician.

“They’re not out on an impersonator hunt to get their characters,” Hunter says. “They just want somebody who loves their character, who really enjoys what they’re doing.”

“I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I’d be right for Johnny Cash,” says Hale, who in fact received his first call-back for the role of Elvis. “I knew I just didn’t have the right look for (Elvis), so I picked a song both of them had at one point sung and sang it in low baritone register.”

Kaye says people tell him how much he resembles Lewis, but he doesn’t see it. “They latch on to the idea of him and then they latch on to me.”

The drama revolves more around Sam Phillips (Marc D. Donovan), who already had made a star of Presley and sold his record contract to RCA when the newly minted star came back to visit a recording session where Perkins was supported by Lewis. Phillips summoned Cash to complete the impromptu quartet.

Hale says the musical reconstructs the session as a family dynamic with Phillips as the father figure. Cash is “the eldest son” and Presley “the golden child who can do no wrong.”

Perkins is more “the middle child who might be forgotten on occasion but kind of feels like he needs some attention,” and Lewis is “just the bratty child.”

But there was magic in the little building on Union Avenue. “There were no other records that sounded like that at the time. They were spooky,” Mead says. “We were trying to re-create that in our little show too, that same sort of spirit of, nothing sounds like this.”

Mead is the show’s authenticity cop. He played the Las Vegas Hilton back in 1996 with BR549, a band that reinterpreted classic country and rockabilly with youthful energy and contemporary perspective.

Now he does the same for “Quartet,” traveling to wherever a new cast is being assembled, teaching rockabilly licks to grunge guitarists and trying to preserve the essence of what cast members uniformly describe as “raw.”

“What we tried to do with it is take the actual (historic) recordings and then have people put their own stamp on it, because that’s what makes it real,” Mead says.

“That’s what (the original four) were doing, they were taking a bunch of stuff that they knew and making it their own. That’s what you do to make it authentic, and you get to the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Robert Britton Lyons plays Perkins and is the most tenured member of the Las Vegas company; he was part of the original Broadway cast in 2010.

When he listens to the recording of the real quartet’s actual session, “It’s kind of spooky and eerie,” he says.

“You’re hearing the voices of these guys we’ve been inhabiting so long now, and some of the stuff (in the show) is definitely taken from the tapes. I love that recording just as a snapshot, and I think the show in general comes off like that.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@
reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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