🎭 Four Men Walk Into a Studio | “Million Dollar Quartet” @ 5-Star

Million Dollar Quartet (5-Star Theatricals)This afternoon, we trudged out to Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza to see the 5-Star Theatricals production of Million Dollar Quartet. Now this isn’t a new show to us: We saw the national tour back in June 2012 when it was at the Pantages. My opinion of the show itself really hasn’t changed: it is a good jukebox show constructed around a real-life incident, and it has appeals to those who grew up on that music. More on that in a minute.

About the show itself: For those unfamiliar, he’s how I described it back in 2012 (any updates are due to links moving):

[…]let’s start instead with the real history, summarized by Sun Records: According to Sun, the jam session seems to have happened by pure chance. Perkins, who by this time had already met success with “Blue Suede Shoes,” had come into the studios that day, accompanied by his brothers Clayton and Jay and by drummer W.S. Holland, their aim being to cut some new material, including a revamped version of an old blues song, “Matchbox.” Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, had brought in his latest acquisition, singer and piano man extraordinaire, Jerry Lee Lewis, still unknown outside Memphis, to play the piano on the Perkins session. Sometime in the early afternoon, Elvis Presley, a former Sun artist himself, but now at RCA, dropped in to pay a casual visit accompanied by a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. He was, at the time, the biggest name in show business. After chatting with Philips in the control room, Presley listened to the playback of the Perkins’ session, which he pronounced to be good. Then he went into the studio and some time later the jam session began. Phillips left the tapes running in order to “capture the moment” as a souvenir and for posterity. At some point during the session, Sun artist Johnny Cash, who had also enjoyed a few hits on the country charts, popped in (Cash claimed he was the first to arrive at Sun Studio that day). The event was captured by well known photograph of Elvis Presley seated at the piano surrounded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. The session tapes have been released on CD.

That’s what we know happened. Around this story a musical was constructed. The basic plot elements added by book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux revolved around the following: (1) At the end of 1955, Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA to prevent Sun Records from going bankrupt; now RCA wanted to buy Phillips and the studio to get someone who knew how to work with Elvis; (2) Cash had been increasingly absent from the studio, and Phillips wanted to lure him back by presenting him with a 3-year contract; (3) the tension between Perkins, who had written “Blue Suede Shoes”, and Elvis, who made it a hit on the Ed Sullivan Show, and (4) Perkins, who was trying to find his next hit, and the just-hired Jerry Lee Lewis, a brash young upstart trying to prove himself. The songs chosen were some (but not all) of the ones from the original session, plus a number of well-known hits that may have come a little later. This isn’t a true story.

This also isn’t an impersonator show. You want that, go to Vegas. The actors in this show have hints of the mannerisms of the original artists, but are not going for exact impersonations or impressions. They have hits of the vocal quality. What they do have is the musical skills, which combined with the hints makes you see them as the artists.  This is the contribution of the original concept and direction by Floyd Mutrix.

So what makes or breaks this show is the quality of the music talent, as there is no other orchestra. Luckily, 5-Star cast reasonably strong, both in vocal and musical quality. We thought the strongest musical talent was Garrett Forestal Jerry Lee Lewis on piano and Benny Lipson Jay Perkins on bass. They were remarkable. Also strong musically were Will Riddle Carl Perkins on Electric Guitar, and Lonn Hayes Fluke on drums. We were a little less sure about the acoustic guitar work of LJ Benet Elvis Presley and Peter Oyloe Johnny Cash.  It was good, but not as remarkable as the others.

Vocally, the singing cast was strong, most notably the four leads mentioned above as well as Summer Nicole Greer Dyanne (who was a composite for Marilyn Evans). Having listened to all of the original artists, I think they leads captured the vocal characteristics well. Oyloe (Cash) could have used a bit more gravitas in his voice, but this was the younger Cash and that hadn’t fully developed yet. The remaining lead cast member, Adam Poole Sam Phillips really didn’t do any noticeable singing, but gave a strong performance providing narration and stringing the show together.

However, the show did have one major problem: The audience. This afternoon matinee was about 40% full, and that is after closing the balcony and moving the mezzanine subscribers to the back of the orchestra. A company cannot survive with audiences like that. We were talking about 5-Star’s season choices: Million Dollar Quartet, Sound of Music, and Little Shop of Horrors. All of these are shows aimed at folks who were in their teens or later in the 1950s and 1960s. That audience is dying, and with shows like this you’re not going to draw in the kids. I’m at the tail end of that generation (my teen years were in the 1970s), and even I think we need to move past the classic rock being the 1950s and 1960s. That’s like someone of my age being nostalgic for the 1910s.

Regional theatre companies must get past the classics of the 1960s and 1950s “Golden Age” of theatre; they must get past jukebox shows that harken back to the 1950s and 1960s (the recent Wonderettes – Dream On being a good example of that). These theatres need to be bringing in the latest “near Broadway” and recently released to regional theatres that they can. They need to partner and experiment with shows on their way to Broadway with sounds of the 1990s and later. For companies to survive, they need to be bringing in new audiences, and younger audiences. Don’t keep doing the shows that have been done to death; don’t keep bringing in jukebox shows that only the senior citizens will appreciate.

To sum things up: 5-Stars production of Million Dollar Quartet was excellent, and if you like the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, early Johnny Cash, early Elvis Presley, and Carl Perkins, you’re in for a wonderful jam session. But I question the skew of the 5-Star season, and encourage theatres planning their seasons to think about what will bring in younger new subscribers that are needed to thrive, not just the older seniors who (like the companies) are just existing.

Lastly: The TO Civic Arts Plaza isn’t helping. They are now charging $15 for parking. For that facility and location, it’s a ridiculous prices that will also turn away people. The Ahmanson downtown is $9. The Pantages is $25 or more, but that’s a much more space limited area using private garages. A price of $9-$10 would be much more appropriate. Further, the security at T.O. is excessive given the risk. It’s stronger than at the Pantages or the Ahmanson, for a much lower threat target. Again, this creates friction for patrons—something a struggling theatre company does not need.

Million Dollar Quartet plays for one more weekend, closing March 24, 2024. Tickets are available through 5-Star Theatricals, and possibly your favorite discount joints.


Cast: LJ Benet Elvis Presley ; Garrett Forestal Jerry Lee Lewis; Summer Nicole Greer Dyanne; Lonn Hayes Fluke; Benny Lipson Jay Perkins; Peter Oyloe Johnny Cash; Adam Poole Sam Phillips; Will Riddle Carl Perkins.

Production and Creative: Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. Original Concept and Direction by Floyd Mutrux. Direction by Tim Seib. No credit for Choreography. Other production credits: David Lamoureux Music Director/Conductor; Brandon Baruch Lighting Design; Jonathan A. Burke Sound Design; Alex Choate Props Design; Tuacahn Costume Rentals Costume Design; Derek McLane Original Scenic Design; Gail Garon and Chris Steele Wardrobe Supervisors; Phil Gold Production Stage Manager; Cameron J. Turner Stage Manager; David Elzer/Demand/PR Press Representative; Fresh Interactive Marketing.

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Administrivia: I am not a professional critic. I’m a cybersecurity professional, a roadgeek who does a highway site and a podcast about California Highways, and someone who loves live performance. I buy all my own tickets, unless explicitly noted otherwise. I do these writeups to share my thoughts on shows with my friends and the community. I encourage you to go to your local theatres and support them (ideally, by purchasing full price tickets, if you can afford to do so). We currently subscribe or have memberships at: Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson TheatreBroadway in Hollywood/Pantages TheatrePasadena PlayhouseGeffen Playhouse (Mini-Subscription); 5-Star Theatricals. We’re looking for the right intimate theatre to subscribe at — it hasn’t been the same since Rep East died (it’s now The Main, and although it does a lot of theatre, it doesn’t have seasons or a resident company), and post-COVID, most 99-seaters aren’t back to doing seasons (or seasons we like). I used to do more detailed writeups; here’s my current approach.

Upcoming ♦ Theatre / ♣ Music / ◊ Other Live Performance – Next 90ish Days (⊕ indicates ticketing is pending):

On the Theatrical Horizon:

Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica has announced their Mainstage 2024 Season, and it includes Bat Boy the Musical running Sept 28 through October 18. We saw Bat Boy back when CSUN did it in 2014; it is a wonderful musical about how a society treats outsiders. I also just learned about a theatre company in Fullerton, Maverick Theater. They are doing Evil Dead: The Musical , which is a hoot if you’ve never seen it (we’ve seen it twice). They also have some interesting other stuff on their season, and we might drive down for Santa Claus Vs The Martians in November.


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