‘Million Dollar Quartet’ puts Elvis and friends onstage at 6th Street Playhouse
The evening of Dec. 4, 1956, was a pivotal moment in American musical history; a night that some say planted the first seeds of today’s rock ‘n’ roll.
Four musical greats - Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins - came together by chance at Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee and soon found themselves in an impromptu jam session. Someone flipped the switch to record in the studio Sam Phillips owned that winter night and the recording became legendary, earning the group the title of “Million Dollar Quartet.”
The story of how this fateful night unfolded - accompanied by live musical performances - offers audiences a unique retelling of this slice of rock ‘n’ roll history. A theatrical rendition of that legendary night opens Friday, Feb. 22, at the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa.
“I think what will be striking for people who’ve gone to the playhouse before, is the extraordinary amount of talent that is in the show,” said “Million Dollar Quartet” director Michael Ray Wisely.
The show’s featured performers include Daniel Durston as Elvis Presley, Steve Lasiter as Johnny Cash, Nick Kenrick (the show’s musical director) as Jerry Lee Lewis, Jake Turner of Santa Rosa as Carl Perkins and another local, Benjamin Stowe, as Sam Phillips.
This is the third production of “Million Dollar Quartet” that Wisely has participated in. A longtime director and Screen Actor’s Guild actor for 25 years, the East Bay resident says his first introduction to the show was playing Sam Phillips in a production directed by Hunter Foster. Wisely then went on to direct the show for Sierra Repertory Theatre.
A lot was happening in America’s music scene in 1956 and several elements come together to deliver a spectacular on-stage adaptation of this story.
“Elvis had just been sold to RCA so he (Sam Phillips) had already made a star out of Elvis. Carl Perkins had already had some hits. Johnny Cash had already had some hits and Jerry Lee Lewis is brand new, he’s just kind of being found by Sam when this play starts,” said Wisely. “Although the play tries to push four or five years of stuff into one night, all these things did happen, arguably, in one form or another.”
One minor change that Wisely notes about the performances is that one character, Dyanne, is not necessarily a real historical figure, but a character based on Elvis Presley’s girlfriend at the time, Marilyn Evans. Dyanne is played by Samantha Arden.
Of the multiple things to appreciate and love about the show, Wisely has an affinity for the role that Sam Phillips played in bringing rock ‘n’ roll to mainstream audiences. Wisely also appreciates his forward thinking in regards to the racial tension of the 1950s South.
“It’s this music that took over the world, changed the world,” said Wisely. “And in playing Sam Phillips and being included in this show, what I realized was that rock ‘n’ roll was really just born out of poverty and slavery. Most all the practitioners who started rock ‘n’ roll were either really, really dirt poor, white people and/or black blues musicians or immigrants.”
Sam Phillips was one of the only producers who recorded black musicians in the south at the time. He also started an all-female radio station, WHER.
“That’s the kind of forward-thinking person he was and that’s what helped create rock ‘n’ roll. That’s where my passion lies in doing this show even though this will be my third time,” said Wisely.
“I’ll just say that my vision for this show, for when the people sit down, is to learn a little bit about rock ‘n’ roll that they didn’t know, be a little deeper in rock ‘n’ roll. Also, to be transported back to 1956 with the way of 6th Street, myself and Jared Sakren who produces the show,” said Wisely. “And once there, give them a kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll show.”