The attention is on Elvis, where it oughta be. He’s about to croak out his first single, “That’s All Right.” As a way of introduction, a man seated next to the piano with his face in a binder reads from sheets in a script, something about being excited over this “white kid who sings like a Negro sings.”
No one flinches at that dated reference. It’s lingo drawn from a bygone era. But instead of that song, the tune emanating from the piano is the familiar play-in from “C.C. Rider,” the song that swept Elvis to the stage at the International Hotel and Las Vegas Hilton.
The group of actors and musicians -- and most of them are both -- laugh at the unexpected playing of that song.
“Mr. Phillips,” one calls out, not reading from a bound script, and his voice carrying a lilting Southern accent. “Is that the song from ‘The Price Is Right?’ ”
“You know, it does sound like ‘The Price Is Right,’ ” Elvis says.
Come on down!
The scene is tucked into a loosely arranged rehearsal for the musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” scheduled to open Feb. 4 at Harrah’s, replacing “Legends in Concert,” which has duck-walked to Flamingo Las Vegas.
Guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings of Baby Boomers across the land, “Million Dollar Quartet” brings to the stage the famous day on Dec. 4, 1956, when Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins met by chance at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios to chat and jam. One of the legendary photos in American entertainment history is of those four gathered around the piano, and that image is the launching point for the musical.
“Million Dollar Quartet” stopped at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in June during its U.S. tour, having closed on Broadway in the summer of 2011. Now, as then, the show’s cornerstone is its live band.
That’s how this rehearsal process takes form: As a protracted jam session. Not with actors swapping lines. That comes later. First to be fine-tuned is the music, as the show is bursting with classic songs from each of the four mythic music figures.
For the Las Vegas stage, Presley is portrayed by “Legends in Concert” performer Tyler Hunter. Carl Perkins is played by Rob Lyons, the member with the longest affiliation to “MDQ,” a singer/songwriter/musician from Seattle who originated the role seven years ago in the Chicago production. Ben Hale is Johnny Cash; you might know him as the swing performer in the role of Raoul in “Phantom -- The Las Vegas Spectacular” at the Venetian. Martin Kaye is Jerry Lee Lewis; Kaye also is a familiar face for anyone who saw the show at Smith Center. The British-born Kaye was Jerry Lee then, too. Felice Garcia, who was the final principal singer in "Folies Bergere" at the Trop and has performed in “iCandy” at Saxe Theater, "Fantasy" at Luxor and played Christina Aguilera in “American Superstars” at Stratosphere, is the fictional character Dyanne. She's the gal who shows up to the unexpected meeting while hanging hard on Elvis’ arm.
And “Mr. Phillips,” the term thrown around the cast during its Vegas rehearsals, is Marc Donovan.
This is a “book” show, with a definitive plot to be read and recited. There is some measure of acting going on, no doubt, but to refer to the stage performers as actors is to give less than full credit. This is a rock ’n’ roll band, and it cranks. Perkins, Cash and Presley all play guitar. Lewis is a classically trained pianist. All can sing -- there would be no point in casting them in these roles if they couldn’t. On the drums is Jim Belk; his other job lately has been music director for Michael Grimm. Plucking ably on the stand-up bass is Mikey Hachey, late of the “Viva Elvis” band at Aria.
This crew was dropped into its rehearsal space on Cameron Street as if placed into a petri dish to see how they would organically grow.
Early in the process, the musicians are apt to fly into any tune that came to mind, which is how Kaye vaulted into Elton John’s “Benny & the Jets.” There are long interludes between songs, as if no one has a thought as to where to resume the creative process.
But these seemingly pointless breaks are all folded into the show’s master plan.
“It seems like there is no point to some of this,” says Eric Schaeffer, the show’s director. “It’s like you can’t treat it like a normal musical, which is a good thing. This is getting a band together, and out of that grows the show. They depend on each other. Try this one, this lick and that lick.
“It’s not about acting, it’s about reacting.”
Such as when the cast members convene around the piano and one asks, “What should we sing?” They opt to harmonize in preparation for “Sixteen Tons.” When Garcia takes the mic for “Fever,” the thump of Belk’s bass kick has to be right there.
During one down moment, there is talk of ripping into either “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” or “Long Tall Sally” as Music Director Chuck Mead works with Hunter on achieving the tricky F chord (or, as some guitarists call it, the F-ing chord). Several feet away, near Kaye’s piano, Lyons is picking through Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.”
As the cast member with the deepest roots, Lyons is an expert at the evolution of the show. He was a highly capable musician but not an accomplished actor when he was plucked from his various music projects in Seattle to join “Million Dollar Quartet” in Chicago.
“When I started, I was not familiar with acting,” he says. “Playing the music was second nature. That said, I wasn’t necessarily familiar with original rock ’n’ roll. I was into jam bands, funk, I was in a hip-hop band for a while. But we want this process to be as authentic as possible, to get a good group of musicians that we can teach to act if we need to.”
Hale, as the former Raoul, would seem an odd fit as Cash. But he has the voice down, the iconic guitar stance, that whole beat-or-be-beaten Cash persona.
“I went from a romantic lead to …” Hale says, looking for the right term. “To a bad ass, yeah. A bad ass.”
Before the troupe -- or band -- breaks for lunch, there is one more song to pound out. The group decides on an Elvis tune.
“Some people like to rock! Some people like to roll! But movin' and a-groovin' gonna satisfy my soul!” Hunter howls.
The song is “Party,” and that’s the goal. A million-dollar party, with a house band for the ages.