Million Dollar Quartet

The Cast of Village Theatre’s musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” playing this summer in Issaquah and Everett.

The success story of “Million Dollar Quartet” began in December 1956, when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins all congregated together for an informal “jam session” at Sun Records. Fast forward to 2006, when film-maker Floyd Mutrix became interested in developing a show around that jam session.

“Quartet” was developed at Issaquah’s Village Theatre and received a small-scale “tryout” in Florida. When the show arrived full-scale at Village Theatre in 2007, it made history as the theatre’s best-selling, most record-breaking production. The subsequent run in Everett received an unprecedented extension to meet popular demand, with ticket sales exceeding a million dollars. But Issaquah and Everett were only the beginning of the show’s amazing trajectory. “Quartet” played in Chicago for several years and Broadway came calling next. The Broadway production received three Tony Award nominations, winning Levi Kries a Tony Award as “Best Actor” for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis.

Since Broadway, “Quartet” has played London, Las Vegas, cruise ships, and been revived Off-Broadway. I’m scratching my head wondering how and why the show remained off my radar for so long. The show has now returned to where it all began, with an extended Summer run in Issaquah and Everett. “Quartet” is sensational, indeed, but not an easy show to perform.

The main quartet of actors; Jason Kappus (Elvis Presley), John Countryman (Jerry Lee Lewis), Brian Grey (Johnny Cash) and Skye Scott (Carl Perkins), must sing and play their own instruments, and portray music icons — flawed and emotionally volatile artists who are not very friendly towards each other. The musical and dramatic requirements are definitely daunting.

At first, I thought the show would be a “jukebox musical,” with the title quartet just sitting around singing a bunch of great songs. I was rewarded with much more. Musically, the show is great fun. Dramatically, the show has a powerful punch.

Sam Phillips created Sun Records studio from a tiny automotive repair store. Phillips (Matt Wade) narrates the story of how he discovered Elvis, Johnny, Jerry and Carl, and lost them all quickly. Mr. Phillips had an eye for talent, an ear for music, and too much back luck in business. By 1955, a bad deal forced him to sell Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA Records in order to keep Sun Studios operational. As “Quartet” begins at the end of 1956, he is set to extend Johnny Cash’s contract. Ironically, Cash wants out in order to move to Columbia Records and sing Gospel music, while Elvis desperately wants to return to Sun Studios. Feeling betrayed by both Phillips and Elvis, odd man out Carl Perkins is ready to move to Columbia Records as well. In the midsts of all this, hot-shot, arrogant musical genius Jerry Lee Lewis burns bridges with everyone.

The show features a generous grab bag of approximately 22 songs All the music and drama is delivered in a fast paced 90 minutes with no intermission.

Having performed in several productions of “Quartet” nationwide, John Countryman is most at ease as Jerry Lee Lewis. His performance is gripping and remarkable. Jerry is a hot fire cracker ready to explode and do damage. His talents are almost eclipsed by his ego. Jerry thinks he has more talent than anyone else in the room, and he might be right. Jerry would be insufferable if his talents were not so obvious. His professional pride and self-confidence are not misplaced. Not surprisingly, the show starts cooking early on with Mr. Countryman’s rendition of “Real Wild Child.”

The more gracious Johnny Cash suggests that Jerry would be wise to dial his ego down. Brian Grey is so channeled into Johnny Cash, he gave me chills. His renditions of “Folsom Prison Blues,” “16 Tons” and “I Walk The Line” are perfectly spot-on.

Skye Scott grabbed my attention instantly with his renditions of “Matchbox” and “Who Do You Love?” His performance as Carl Perkins grows progressively more mesmerizing. Mr. Countryman’s Jerry Lee Lewis is an aggressive talent that won’t be calmed. In sharp contrast, Mr. Scott plays Perkins with a simmering, slow burn that boils over into justified rage. Perkins wrote and recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” first. After a car accident, Perkins wakes up to discover that Phillips had Elvis record it too. Elvis gets the hit record and Perkins gets the shaft. It’s uncomfortably easy to understand why Perkins feels so cheated and betrayed.

In such company, Jason Kappus seems a bit lost as Elvis Presley. It is impossible for anyone to match the magnetic charisma and indescribable “X Factor” of Elvis. Mr. Kappus does not quite find his groove. He eventually swivels his hips and settles into a “mild Elvis” Vibe. I was hoping for a more wild Elvis. As the Summer run continues, I’m sure he will grow more confident and comfortable in the role.

The central quartet is joined by additional musicians Chris Jones and James “Rif” Reif. The versatile Cayman Ilika also joins the musical mix as Dyanne, a “girlfriend” of Elvis. (If a “Dyanne” existed in really life, she probably was with Elvis “Pre-Priscilla”). Dyanne is there to add some spice, and give the increasingly beleaguered Phillips some necessary advice and perspective. Spice is nice, but Miss Ilika gives much more. Her sizzling hot rendition of “Fever” is perfect. Later, she delivers a no-holds-barred version of “I Hear You Knocking.”

Audiences may like their music icons to get happy endings. This is seldom the case, however. The most poignant moment in the show comes when Phillips says, “My boys all had success. I wish they had more happiness.”

“Quartet” has an exhilarating, extended encore of a finale, featuring “Great Balls Of Fire,” ”Party,” “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” “Later, Alligator” and “Lotta Shakin’ Going on” — with Elvis, Johnny, Jerry and Carl all decked out in super snazzy costumes by Esther Garcia. Appropriately, the show is not over until this announcement comes over the loudspeaker: “Ladies And Gentleman, Elvis has left the building.”

I urge everyone to get out and see “Quartet” this summer in Issaquah and/or Everett. If you miss the triumphant return engagement of this mega-hit, you will regret it.

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