Elvis, Johnny Cash and the other characters of the jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet” launched their careers in Memphis in the ’50s. But they also played the Nevada casinos during the 1970s, and their fans in the region often think of them as honorary locals.
The crowd at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor production of the show hollers when actor Sky Seals, playing Johnny Cash, simply mentions a nearby Nevada city in “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Cash: When I was just a baby, my momma told me, “Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns. But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die. When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry…”
The performers in this show are professional actors, but they are also trained musicians, and they sing their vocals and play their instruments. Sam Sherwood, playing Carl Perkins, is a worthy rockabilly guitarist. And Gabe Aronson, as Jerry Lee Lewis, burns up the piano keys.
Lewis: Well, I'm just out of school, I'm real, real cool, I got the jump, got the jive, Got the message, I'm alive
I'm a wild, I'm wild one, Ooh, yeah I'm a wild one
I'm gonna keep a-shakin', I'm gonna keep a-movin', baby
Don't you cramp my style, I'm a real wild child
Between songs there are retrospective bits of breathless dialog, like this exchange between producer Sam Phillips and Cash.
Phillips: Now Johnny Cash came to see us the first of ’55, right after he got out of the air force.
Cash: I was a Specialist First Class, Mr. Philips.
Phillips: What’d you specialize in, son?
Cash: Beer, and fightin’…
This brisk banter illuminates the growing career tensions between the four young stars — each has a well-developed ego, and wants to one-up the others.
The plot is loosely based on an actual recording session at Sun Records in 1956, the only occasion when Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all played together.
So think of “Million Dollar Quartet” as a nostalgic two-hour party in the great outdoors, studded with classic tunes, as the four main actors conjure the spirits of four young stars who hit their stride about 60 years ago. Many in the audience sang along with the cast, particularly during the second half. And the evening air at lakeside was pleasantly cool, with the moon glimmering off the water. This summer festival production is carefully designed to be a crowd-pleaser that sends you home smiling, and by that measure, “Million Dollar Quartet” succeeds in what it sets out to accomplish.
Lake Tahoe Shakespeare’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet” continues at the Sand Harbor in Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, just south of Incline Village, through Aug. 23.