One legendary night in 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis all found themselves in the same room at Sun Studios in Memphis, TN. These icons of rock and roll, rockabilly, country and blues went on to make music history, but for one night, they were just jamming with their friends. The 2010 Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet dramatizes this recording session and features smash-hit tunes that endure today.
The actors who double as musicians in The Argyle Theater’s new production bring these legends to life. James Penca takes to the stage as Johnny Cash, not the older Man in Black that everyone knows, but 24-year-old Cash as he’s trying to find his voice in the recording industry.
“I have the accent down and the way he would say certain things, I studied his voice…the way he walked and that stuff,” said Penca. “You get a good essence of Johnny, which is what we’re all trying to do.”
Penca grew up listening to the music of this era and playing it came easily, except for one challenging part.
“The hardest part about the music was the way that Johnny holds a pick is not the way that I hold the pick,” he said. “That really threw me for about a week.”
Taylor Gray has portrayed Jerry Lee Lewis in two national tours and another production before making his Argyle debut. Though he’s played piano since the first grade, it wasn’t until he auditioned for the first production that he learned that signature Jerry Lee Lewis style.
“A lot of people love about Jerry Lee that he’d always move around crazy with those acrobatics…and have this [hair] flapping in his face,” Gray said and swept back his own coiled locks.
Carl Perkins is the least known of the quartet seven decades later, but he made his mark just like the others. Perkins, portrayed by Morgan Bernhard, was the original writer and performer of “Blue Suede Shoes” before Elvis famously recorded it and the resentment this situation created is touched on in the musical.
“This show is really good at spotting that tension between all of these people at this specific moment in time, but they were also really great friends, so it’s kind of finding that fine balance of tension, friendship and having fun playing music together,” Bernhard said.
“At this point in his career, Elvis has just left Sun Records,” said Alessandro Viviano, who plays Elvis. “He’s just been sold to his big record company RCA Records and he is yearning to come back to his roots. He misses his friends.”
Callee Miles plays Elvis’ girlfriend, Dyanne, a fictionalized version of his girlfriend at the time.
“I find being the only woman in a room this year is very different from being the only woman in the room in 1956,” Miles said. “Certain similarities have carried over and I can bring personal experience [to that].”
Miles performs “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking” during the show and owns being the only woman in the room, rather than trying to be one of the boys or shrinking into the corner.
Sam Phillips, the producer at Sun Records, is the one who brought the quartet all together that evening. Played by John Glowacki, Phllips was a visionary and influential to the music industry unlike any other.
“Trying to imagine what the future of music is going to be, it’s a skill…not something I can do,” said Glowacki, “So it’s been crazy stepping into the shoes of somebody with that crazy ability—to put pieces together on a national level of what’s going on in the country, what’s going on culturally and what can I do to influence that and make a difference.”
Filling out the cast is Jason Cohen, who plays Carl Perkins’ older brother, Jay, the bass player, and Anthony Genovesi, who plays Fluke, the drummer. Cohen, who previously played Jerry Lee Lewis in other national and regional productions, takes on Brother Jay for the first time at the Argyle and trades in piano acrobatics for stunts with the large bass. Genovesi is a young musician from East Hampton that the Argyle’s artistic director plucked from the pit of the theater’s last production and put him on stage behind a drum kit.
Don’t miss this fabulous production of Million Dollar Quartet at The Argyle, 34 West Main St., Babylon, through June 23. For tickets and showtimes, visit argyletheatre.com or call 844-631-5483.
—With reporting by Waldo Cabrera