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Revival Theatre striking gold with ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ at CSPS in Cedar Rapids
Show recreates musical milestone with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins
CEDAR RAPIDS — CSPS will have a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on when Revival Theatre Company recreates the day Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins jammed at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn.
The date was Dec. 4, 1956, early in their careers. Lewis and Presley were 21, and Cash and Perkins were 24. When Sun Records owner Sam Phillips realized the firepower in the room, he called the local newspaper, and according to the show’s website, the gathering became known as “the Mount Rushmore of Rock ’n’ Roll.” And when a reporter wrote, “This quartet could sell a million,” the name “Million Dollar Quartet” was born.
The 2010 Tony-winning musical, which runs March 1 to 5 at CSPS Hall, will bring a welcome ray of sunshine in the midst of not only the bleak midwinter, but also less than a month after Cameron Sullenberger, Revival Theatre’s co-founder and music director, died of a heart attack at CSPS, shortly before the production’s first rehearsal.
If you go
What: Revival Theatre Company presents “Million Dollar Quartet”
Where: CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: March 1 to 5, 2023; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Friday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $50 to $55; $25 students and veterans in person at the Arts Iowa Ticket Office, 119 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids; cabaret tables $250 up to 4 seats at (319) 366-8203; details artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/million-dollar-quartet-rtc/
“There's multiple reasons why I'm glad we're doing this show,” said Brian Glick, Revival co-founder and artistic director.
First off, the four lead players, professional actors from different parts of the country, have performed the show before. Nathan Burke (Carl Perkins) and Jacob Barton (Elvis Presley) have been on national tours of the show, and Jackson Baker (Johnny Cash) and Garrett Forrestal (Jerry Lee Lewis) have performed in regional productions.
A major requirement of the script is that the actors play the real characters’ instruments. With Jerry Lee Lewis kicking it on the piano, Sullenberger would have been in the audience, not playing keyboards for the performances, as he had done so many times before. His role would have been coaching the actors, finding a cohesive sound and adding his vision to Revival Theatre’s version.
Glick debated bringing someone else on board to fill the musical direction role, but decided he could lean on the actors to pull it together, including local veterans Amy Friedl Stoner as Elvis’ girlfriend and Tad Paulson as Sam Phillips. Local musicians Ryan Hoagland will add drums and Ken DeKeyser will play bass, rounding out Perkins’ band at the monumental recording session.
“We just sort of work together to figure out some of the moments that are trickier,” Glick said, adding that it’s made easier “because they’re all very accomplished in their own individual careers. And this group is A-list. It’s fantastic.”
He’s just grateful it isn’t a huge-cast show like “Titanic,” staged in September, which required Sullenberger’s expertise and experience to pull together.
“Because the show is not this behemoth, it’s pretty straightforward, and in some cases, very simplistic,” Glick said. “I keep using the term from ‘The Color Purple’ — ‘God works in mysterious ways.’ ”
Texas native Burke, now based in New York City, is not only thrilled to step into Perkins’ blue suede shoes again, he’s also thrilled to be back in Eastern Iowa, after slinging an electric guitar as Perkins in the Old Creamery Theatre’s 2017 production in Amana, and at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Feb. 29, 2020.
Perkins is perhaps the least well-known of the foursome. A rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll pioneer, he wrote and recorded “Blue Suede Shoes,” which topped the charts in 1956, and soon thereafter, also became a hit for Presley.
While none of the actors are doing a Vegas-style impersonation of the musicians, they are seeking to capture the traits that made them famous, Glick said. And because Perkins didn’t have a defining look, Burke doesn’t have the same audience expectations to live up to, which presents an interesting challenge.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword in a way,” he said. “I’ve done the show a few times now. And so on one hand, it’s nice that (with) the other three of the quartet, audiences maybe have a more clear picture of what they expect from those performers playing those roles.
“Where with Carl, they probably couldn’t remember the last time they saw him — if ever. So you have a little leeway to work with when you’re collaborating with a director, to sort of build what you want him to be like, to look like, how faithful do you want to be,” Burke said. “That’s sort of the freedom in it, too.
“But you want to pay a nice homage to a person who was real and who truly existed, and where the drama of the show is concerned, had a really legitimate problem he was going through. And it’s cool — I can’t think of another piece of media that focuses on that,” Burke said.
Glick added: “I think because people think they know the other characters, even though they find out things about them, they listen with more intent to Carl because they don’t.”
“It’s an interesting way to give him some attention that maybe he deserved in life, that he didn’t get,” Burke said, adding that he’s learned a lot about Perkins through preparing for this role.
For instance, Lewis and Presley weren’t the only ones with moves.
“(Perkins) was actually super fun to watch,” Burke said. “He doesn’t quite dance — he does a lot of kicking. It’s nervous energy, jumping and kicking (with) just kind of spurty bursts of energy. He’ll bring the guitar down and kick and add lots of just tiny little jumps, and swing this thing around. He’s just so funny to watch.”
Perkins was the catalyst for the others at Sun Record Studios that night. He was there with his band to record “Matchbox,” which later became a Top 20 hit for The Beatles.
Phillips brought in Lewis to play piano for the recording session, and Presley and Cash also happened by that night. Presley brought along his girlfriend, Marilyn Evans, whose name is changed to Dyanne for “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Audiences will hear a hit parade, including “Sixteen Tons,” “Long Tall Sally,” “I Walk the Line,” “Matchbox,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” “See You Later Alligator,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and others. And the actors hope the viewers will leap to their feet and dance along, especially near the end, Burke said.
But it’s not a mere jukebox musical. It has meat on its bones.
Finding the drama
“There’s an arc of the piece,” Glick said. “The characters have a lot of depth. And I think with a show like this, because it’s so music-heavy, people tend to like that perspective — the weak side.”
He’s seen that reflected in other productions, where they let the show ride on the music.
“This group of actors are really good, are strong actors, as well, so it’s been nice to … dig a little deeper,” Glick said, and uncover their loyalty to Sun Records and Phillips.
“I think for Sam, it’s hard because he discovered these men, and they’re going out. Their careers are taking them to bigger places, and he knows that, but it’s hard for him to let go of that,” Glick said. “He wants to keep hold of them, in a loving way, but it’s a hard change for him to accept.
“And so I think the arc of it is realizing that even though these men are not going to stay with you forever, they are always a part of you, and this place, and we see that in that moment, and we know that today.
“So I think the arc is that at the end of the day, even though everyone goes different places, we acknowledge our humble beginnings, and that it’s OK, as artists and as humans, that life moves on but we never forget.”
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