Tuesday, July 30, 2019

“Great Balls Of Fire”

It must have been an hour into Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of Fred Mutrux and Colin Escott’s “Million Dollar Quartet”, the musical history trip down memory lane of an unplanned meeting in 1956 between Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley that took place at Sun Record Recording studio in Memphis, where Jerry Lee Lewis (Ben Van Diepen) let loose on the keyboards and pounded out “Great Balls of Fire”.  The house erupted!

The Tony Award winning “Million Dollar Quartet” is now back in San Diego, Vista to be exact. It’s knocking ‘um dead at the little Avo Playhouse  in a revival production under the knowing direction of Lamb’s Associate Artistic Director Kerry Meads.

“Great Balls Of Fire” was the frosting on the cake. Imagine “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Memories Are Made of This”, “Fever”, “Hound Dog”, “Down By The Riverside”, “Sixteen Tons”, “Peace In The Valley” and “I Hear You Knocking”, “On Blueberry Hill”, “Hound Dog”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Riders In The Sky” are but some of the more popular from the song book that we heard.  
Cast "Million Dollar Quartet". 
The piece starts off innocently enough with Sam Phillips owner of Sun Records, taking us back, in somewhat of a memory play, to that historical meeting that some might call  serendipitous, or in my world b’shert.

All four musicians got their start at Sun Records but by the time this event happened, Presley was recording with RCA after Phillips sold his contract to keep Sun recordings alive, and Cash was about to break with Sun to go with Columbia.

These are the facts as Phillips, (a warm and sincere, way down southern gent in the form of Lance Arthur Smith), interjects throughout as he moves the story along.
MacKenzie Leighton and Bret Benowitz as Carl Perkins
It seems that Perkins (master guitarist and impersonator Brett Benowitz) who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” recorded it under the Sun label. He was looking for some help from Sun owner Phillips to get his latest, revamped “Matchbook” cut. He also held out just a bit of resentment that Elvis took all the credit for that number. Who knew?
Walter Brinskele, Katie Sapper and Brett Benowitz
He arrived at the studio with his brother Jay (Mackenzie Leighton who plays a hot Bass) and drummer Fluke (Brian Dall) playing backup. When they ran into up and comer Jerry Lee Lewis (Van Diepen who also is musical director) on the piano, whom Phillips brought in to accompany Perkins in the session, things got a bit testy.  

That whole meeting between Lewis and Perkins did not go down well and the two were at each other (professionally, at least) throughout the jam session according to the creators of the show. While Van Diepen’s look is questionable as to resembling Lewis, he plays a mean keyboard and, for the most part brought an explosive excitement to the show.

And so it went. It seems that Cash (Charles Evans, Jr.) stopped by that day to collect some money and inform Phillips of his defection. After finding the rest of his buddies already engaged he hung out and was coaxed into joining the impromptu session.  
Charles Evans Jr. as Johnnie Cash
Oh, to be a fly on the wall to have actually have been there at the time, however we might have been disappointed since according to Cash, in his autobiography “Cash”, was at the studio before Presley and nowhere on the original recordings of the session was his voice heard.

That’s what show biz is all about.  To make this show work we are taken on an adventure, fiction as it may be, through the eyes of the creators to bring back an event that made history and to give us a glimpse into a meeting that we might otherwise have not known.  Nonetheless, the show is entertaining, to say the least and informative enough to do a little exploring after the facts.

“Million Dollar Quartet” ran on Broadway for a year. It came by it’s name slightly by accident when the local newspaper the Memphis Star Press entertainment editor published the event under the heading “Million Dollar Quartet” that also included a photo of the four with Elvis at the piano and the others around him.
Charles Evans Jr., Ben Van Diepen, Walter Brinskele and Brett Benowitz
All four actors capture the essence and overall core making their characters more real to life but of the four Charles Evans, Jr. sounded like, looked like (in his all black jeans and and shirt, pompadour) emulated Cash in such an uncanny way, that if you closed your eyes, you might have thought Cash was actually singing. Amazing! (“Sixteen Tons”, “I Walk The Line”)

As Elvis Walker Brinskele portrays the very young and still wet behind the ears Presley. He was 21 at the time and a former Sun recording artist, as the story goes, came to hear Perkins. He’s not so much a look a like but more of an impression of Presley. After some coaxing he did join in on the sessions. (“Memories Are Made Of This”, That’s All Right”)

Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis at the piano. (file picture)
Presley also brought his latest squeeze Dyanne, (Katie Sapper) who contributed with her version of “Fever” that also brought the house down. Lest I forget to mention, every number played by every one of the talented four either singularly or with the group, brought a wave of enthusiasm from the afternoon audience (and they know).

‘Lewis was the first person inducted into the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.’
Ben Van Diepen, Matt Benowitz, Walter Brinskele and Charles Evans Jr. 
Phillips went on to promote the careers of B.B. King, Charlie Rich, Ray Orbison and a host of others.

Perkins “Blue Suede Shoes” reached number two on the pop and country charts in 1956. After Presley recorded and it became his third top forty hit and pretty much took the thunder out of Perkins rise to fame although he did continue to write. Known as the Rockabilly Pioneer his mastery reached far and wide, even to his surprise, influencing the Beatles.
Ben Van Diepen as Jerry Lee Lewis
Just as an FYI each and every one of these performers plays a mean guitar, bass, drums, piano not to be outdone by any. All with singing, playing and acting the roles of these Rock n’ Roll greats Lamb’s Players Theatre has two mega hits on its hands: “miXtape” now up and running through Sept. 15th at their home base in Coronado and “Quartet” at the Avo through Sept. 1st.

Credit Mathys Herbert set design resembling the inside of Sun Recording Studio, Jemina Dutra for the accurate 50’s costumes, Nathan Peirson, lighting and Patrick Duffy’s fine sound design.

“Million Dollar Quartet” passed through our fair city some years ago at the Civic. It was a fine production. The pros and cons of a larger venue as opposed to a more intimate one can be debated. Yours truly will take the more intimate, abbreviated version (90 min) anytime.

Elvis doing his thing
It was a serendipitous meeting; or in my world b’shert.
Put on your blue suede shoes and hurry up to Vista and join in a happening.


See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Sept. 1st
Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Phone: 619-437-6000
Production Type: Jukebox Musical
Where: 303 Main Street, Vista, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $28.00
Web: lambsplayers.org
Venue: Avo Playhouse
Photo: Ken Jacques


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