ROCKS SAN JOSÉ
By IRIDE APARICIO
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
San José, CA – “MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET “ premiered at the S. J. Center for the Performing Arts on May 7th with an outstanding performance that ended with the audience standing and clapping as they rocked and danced at the rhythm of the music in front of their seats.
Directed by Tony Award® winning director Eric Schaeffer, the Artistic director/co-founder of Signature Theatre, in Washington DC and written by Co-Authors Floyd Mutrux (Original concept and direction) and Colin Escott. “A MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET” is a 90 minute performance based on a night that is now considered historical.
On December 4, l956, when Samuel Cornelius Phillips, better known as Sam Phillips invited Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and his band and Jerry Lee Lewis to come to his studio, he had business in his mind.
Phillips was the founder of Sun Records Studios located in Memphis, Tennessee, he was also an American businessman, record executive, record producer and DJ who had played an important role in the emergence of rock and roll. He always knew what he was doing and why.
His secret for success as a Record Producer had been his ability to select the types of songs that best displayed the quality of the voice of his singers. We ought to remember that prior to this night, in l954, he had “discovered” Elvis Presley who had recorded his upbeat version of a Bill Monroe’s bluegrass song ”Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Phillips had an open style and a sense of where the artist was now and where he needed to be in order to reach the point of his best performance. In "shaping" Elvis, he took into consideration that Elvis had been raised in Memphis, Tennessee, so his musical influences were the pop and country music of the time (l953), the gospel music he heard in church and the Black R&B he absolved as a teenager on historic Beale Street. Soon after hearing him (Elvis) sing, Phillips saw the potential for business in this white young singer who, by using his diverse musical influences could bring the Black R&B “sounds” of Beale Street, Memphis, to White America.
“My Aim was to try and record the blues and other music I liked and to prove whether I was right of wrong about this music” Phillips was quoted as saying “I knew, that there was a bigger audience for blues than just the Black man of the mid-South.”
To create "the Elvis sound" when recording him, Phillips pulled back the vocals, blending them more with the instrumental performances. He also used tape-delay to get an echo into the Elvis recordings by running the tape through a second recorder head.
In l956, at the time of this "Historical Jam Session", however, Elvis was no longer recording with Sun Records. In November, 1955, Phillips, facing cash flow issues had sold Presley’s contract to RCA for $35,000. Did he regret it? He was asked. “No, I did not, I do not and I never will” he said. He had saved his business, and Elvis, now a movie star, had rocket to success.
The musical opens with Phillips (Grant) explaining to the audience that this is the first and only night that the four singers jammed together making Rock ‘n’ roll history.
Phillips has big plans for that night. First he is going to introduce Carl Perkins (Ferris) to Jerry Lee Lewis, (Kaye) a pianist from Ferriday, Louisiana, that he wants to include in rock recordings to give them (with the piano) a “new instrumental sound.” As a singer, Perkins had not have a hit for a while and is beginning to feel restless. He also wants to give Johnny Cash a new contract.
Sadly, things don’t work out as Phillips had planned. Young Jerry Lee Lewis, is very poor but also very cocky, so it takes only a few minutes for Perkins to dislike him. Their session, with Perkins (Ferris) playing guitar and singing, with Lewis adding piano cords to his song, does not go well with Perkins, in spite that Lewis (Kaye) was playing well. At the end, Perkins humiliates Lewis by placing two maracas in his hands and ask him to shake them.
Here we should add that Kaye is not only an excellent pianist but also a very good actor and that he can display his acting ability in this musical because his character (Lewis) is a the only character with tri-dimensionality. I guess that the other singers: Perkins, Presley and Cash are so well known to everybody, that those who wrote the book considered that no background on these characters was necessary. As a result, Kaye aside from playing a fast, accurate and rhythmic rock ‘n’ roll, in his role as Lewis manages to get into everyobody's nerves with his constant bragging to the point of telling Phillips in a commanding tone: “You make a star out of me.” As represented in this musical, Lewis lacks modesty. He knows he is a great pianist and he already acts like a star.
While all the voices of the actors resemble the original voices of the singers they represent, the most authentic in sound that night was the voice of Keeling impersonating Johnny Cash. On opening night, the depth of his voice and full tone, sounded almost identical to Cash’s when he sang his version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”and “Sixteen Tons.”
Ferris, looked and sounded like Perkins but his excellence that night was demonstrated in the speed and dexterity of his guitar playing. He also gave the public a wonderful rendition of “See you Later alligator” one of the songs that made Perkins famous. As Jay, his brother Chuck Zayas showed his masterly playing the cello.
While Cody Slaughter looks and sounds like Elvis, he couldn’t convince us he was Elvis because of his dancing that needed to have more hip movements and look more natural. specially in “All shook up”
As Jerry Lee Lewis, Kaye was dynamic. His piano playing is fast, yet his fingers’ dexterity is such that we could hear every single note. Kaye really got into his character that night.
To add a female voice “MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET” gives us Dyanne, represented by Kelly Lamont. We see Dyanne entering with Elvis and somehow mixing with all the singers. She talks to Lewis, who even plays something for her. When Elvis asks Dyanne to sing, she does in a mellow well tuned voice.
The plot of the musical is based on the jam session, so the dialogue is very "natural" and not of great importance in the moving of the plot. What is important in this work are "the sounds" the actors singing solo, or singing in duets, or in quartets. The actors playing their instruments. Because of it, to describe “MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET” in words, is almost impossible. One has to hear it. To hear the music, the different arrangements, the voices singing. In other words, one has to feel all these sounds and absorb them to thepoint when one no longer can remain seated but needs to stand, and rock, and clap.
Million Dollar Quartet will play until May 13. For tickets call 408-792-4111 or go online to http//www.broadwaysanjose.com