A seminal moment in rock ‘n roll history is celebrated with TheatreZone’s production of Million Dollar Quartet on stage Feb. 8 – 18 in Naples. The Tony Award-nominated musical commemorates what is considered by music historians one of rock’s greatest jam sessions.
On Dec. 4, 1956, at Sun Records in Memphis, an extraordinary twist of fate brought Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins together for a jam session of artists who would usher in the rock ‘n roll era.
The four artists were drawn to Sun Records because of one man: Sam Phillips, an innovative producer who recorded Elvis Presley’s first songs, including “That’s All Right (Mama),” as well as Carl Perkins’ major hit, “Blue Suede Shoes.”
That night, the unknown Jerry Lee Lewis was in the studio with Carl Perkins to play keyboard on a track of his. The up-and-coming Johnny Cash then arrived. His arrival was cause for excitement for Sam Phillips, who was ready to offer Cash a surprise record deal that night.
Elvis Presley was in town and dropped into the studio with his girlfriend, Dyanne. Rock historians are not sure if Phillips invited him or if his visit was serendipity. Philips had recently sold Presley’s contract to RCA, a lucrative deal for Sun Records that allowed Phillips to promote Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Sun’s first national hit.
By 1956, Presley had exploded into American culture with 17 songs on the Billboard charts including number-one songs “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender.” In 1956 alone he appeared on television shows 11 times and released his first film, Love Me Tender.
With his arrival, the quartet was complete, and the music began.
TheatreZone artistic director Mark Danni says, “Sam Phillips knew what he had. He flipped on the switches of the recording panel and called the local newspaper to come photograph what he knew was a special moment for the ages.”
Million Dollar Quartet, written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, is both a poignant story of hope and disappointment and a concert of smash hits such as “Fever,” “Walk the Line,” “Hound Dog,” “That’s All Right,” and many more. It was nominated for 2010 Tony Awards as Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical.
To cast the real-life giants of music, Danni started with Sam C. Jones, who has performed in Million Dollar Quartet multiple times on stages throughout the U.S. Jones agreed to play Carl Perkins, which includes playing all the lead guitar parts. Jones will also music direct the TheatreZone production. He worked with Danni on auditioning performers who could portray the roles and play the required instruments.
As always, Danni’s criteria are “performers who have talent — of course — but as important, are actors who are organized, prepared, easy going and respectful in rehearsals.”
Jesse Plourde was cast as Elvis Presley after a rigorous search. Previously, Plourde has played Elvis and Sam Philips in regional productions of Million Dollar Quartet. Both Danni and Sam C. Jones agreed that Plourde “has the moves and the voice” for the Elvis role. Danni emphasizes, however, “The show is not about impersonations. These actors are portraying characters in a plotted story.”
Chris Dieman was cast as Jerry Lee Lewis. He is a New York City-based actor and composer whose reel featured him playing piano backwards.
Cody Taylor will perform as Johnny Cash (guitar). His audition was “phenomenal” according to Danni and he came highly recommended.
Jim Ballard, who will play Sam Phillips, has previously performed the same role in Million Dollar Quartet. Ballard also performed in TheatreZone’s Bright Star in February 2022, and was “brilliant,” Danni said.
The cast’s lead actors also include Jennifer Wingerter as Dyanne, Elvis’s girlfriend, who was selected by Danni after auditions of “a lot of great Dyannes” and who recently made her TheatreZone debut in December’s Home for The Holidays. Hunter Dahlen will play Brother Jay, Carl Perkins’ brother who will play the upright bass, which he previously played in TheatreZone’s Bridges of Madison County in April 2022.
Million Dollar Quartet will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8 – 10, Feb. 13 and Feb. 15 – 18 at 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 10 – 11 and 17 – 18 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $50, $65 and $85 at www.theatre.zone or call the box office at 888-966-3352, ext. 1. TheatreZone stages its musical productions in the G&L Theatre located in Naples at 13275 Livingston Road in a dedicated building nestled within the campus of the Community School of Naples.