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L.A. Beat

Million Dollar Quartet explores the history of rock and roll with wit and wild playing

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This is the last week to catch the outstanding production of New West Theatre’s  the Million Dollar Quartet.
 It is not to be missed.
 The show takes place on Dec. 4, 195Matt Cage plays Elvis in New West Theatre’s Million Dollar quartet. photo by Richard Amery6, a pivotal time in the nascent days of rock and roll at the immortal Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, where Sam Phillips has seen his tiny independent record label built in a refurbished auto parts store, explode. Cornerstone artist Elvis Presley has already gone Hollywood where he is making “terrible movies,” Johnny Cash has become a bona fide country star, who has signed to Columbia Records unbeknownst to Phillips, who is trying to get him to re-sign with Sun. And Carl Perkins, who has just skyrocketed with his hit “Blue Suede Shoes” is desperately trying to record his second hit— ideally a cover of the old blues standard “Matchbox,” with the help of a young upstart pianist Jerry Lee Lewis.
 Thus the scene is set for an impromptu jam session arising from Carl Perkins’ session with Jerry Lee Lewis,  and a visit by Johnny Cash plus Elvis and his new girlfriend/singer Dyanne.

The show is really well done. The set is a faithful reconstruction of the actual Sun Studios in Memphis, which is still a popular tourist attraction and which brought back a lot of fond memories  from my visit there.
 The actors are exceptional actors and musicians as well, except for Doug MacArthur who plays Sun Records boss Sam Phillips, who is the only one who doesn’t sing or dance. Devon Brayne conveys a lot of emotions on just his face as Johnny Cash, whether he  is trying to find the best way to break it to his old mentor, friend and original believer Sam Phillips that he is leaving, or being the adult in the room, calling out overly cocky upstart and snot nosed young punk Jerry Lee Lewis played by show stealing Hunter Semrau. Brayne also accurately copies Cash’s physical mannerisms.

 I especially enjoyed the interplay between Semrau and  Kevin Owen Clarke, who plays Carl Perkins.
 Clarke physically and subtly conveys a lot of Perkins’ internalized anger towards Elvis andNew West Theatre’s Million Dollar quartet ends this week at the Yates Theatre. Photo by Richard Amery Sam Phillips as Perkins has his own issues with Elvis, for playing his song “Blue Suede Shoes” on The Ed Sullivan show.

 Matt Cage is a veteran of  Million Dollar Quartet, having played Elvis in a couple other productions of the show, so he has the Elvis character down, right down from the shaking leg to the sneer and dance moves.

All three of them relive their first moments meeting Phillips in various flashbacks, adding to their back stories, in between playing excerpts of their first hits and other classics of the day.

 Hunter Semrau is definitely the comic relief of the show, breaking up some of the more tense moments between Elvis, Perkins and Cash and Phillips. But the U of L opera student steals the show with some “killer” piano playing while easily portraying the misplaced cockiness of of Jerry Lee Lewis as only a 20-year-old with the omniscience of the world can do.

Lewis shamelessly hits on Elvis’s girlfriend and completely disrespects Perkins, which was on the way to being unbearable, until Cash and Phillips call him down for it.

 Claire Lint, a well known choreographer and dancer,  also shows herself to be an impressive singer as well, belting out the Peggy Lee classic “Fever” with aplomb.
 Even the band including guitarist Scott Mezei as Brother Jan, upright bassist Paul Holden playing Clayton  and drummer Theo Lysyk as Fluke get to deliver lines in the show, while providing the musical complement to the main characters who all play and sing.Hunter Semrau plays Jerry Lee Lewis in New West Theatre’s Million Dollar Quartet.Photo by Richard Amery
Semrau is a physical force on piano, playing it with his feet and butt and eventually jumping off it.


Clarke nails Perkins’ rockabilly sound, though I could barely hear his actual guitar and you can’t take your eyes off Brayne and Cage during their Johnny Cash and Elvis numbers.

 There are some pretty cool meta jokes in the show as well as Elvis comments he’d never play Las Vegas,” and  drops the name of his future hit “Burning Love.” The three predict Phillips will be concentrating on this “new kid, Jerry Lee Lewis”
 Cash comments on how he’d love to record a gospel album some time in the future, which he eventually did.

Even at the end, when all seems lost for Sam Phillips, who basically started the first big independent record label — think Sub Pop if is was in the ’50s instead of ’90s —  he reminds us he just signed some “funny looking guy” from Texas named Roy Orbison.

So even though the character doesn’t know it at the moment, we know things will probably turn out all right for him. The show ends with the cast recreating the iconic photo of that jam session of the group around the piano, with the original photograph shining on the walls of the studio.
If you love rock and roll, then you will love Million Dollar quartet.
 It runs at the Yates Theatre at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 26-29 plus a 1 p.m. matinee on Saturday at 1 p.m.

— by Richard Amery, L.A. Beat Editor
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