The enormous creative talents of Eric Schaeffer, artistic director and co-founder of Arlington’s Signature Theatre, continue to draw the national spotlight. Last year Signature Theatre picked up the prestigious 2009 Regional Theatre Tony Award while this year Schaeffer’s staging of "Million Dollar Quartet" on Broadway received three Tony nominations including that for Best Musical. The production came away with an award for Levi Kreis’s raucous piano-slamming, behind-the-back fingers with brains playing portrayal of one of the rebellious founders of early rock-and-roll, Jerry Lee Lewis.
Playing through a song list such as "Great Balls of Fire," "Whole Lotta’ Shaking Goin’ On," and "Blue Suede Shoes," to name just a few of the over 20 anthems to 1950’s teen age rebellion, Schaeffer directed a pulsating one-act, no intermission 90 minutes of un-faked musical talent.
"’Million Dollar Quartet’ is a real unique show, first and foremost they are a band," said Schaeffer. "They all play together every night to make the music and they feed off each other’s energy. This makes the show so special and energized."
The Connection’s Brad Hathaway in his April review of "Million Dollar Quartet" called the show "thrill packed," noting the audience gave "prolonged applause after numerous rocking numbers." More than just a showcase for the musical talents, the production had "a story – giving a hint of tension and suspense," said Hathaway. It was for this story that the production also received a Tony nomination for Best Book for a Musical.
"Million Dollar Quartet" is based upon a now legendary and impromptu December 1956 night when the early bad boys of rock and roll including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and the "killer" Jerry Lee Lewis found themselves together in the Sun Recording studio in Memphis brought together by Sam Phillips. Phillips was about breaking barriers and he had the fuel and the fuse with the four. The Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Musical went to Kreis for his portrayal of Lewis, the man who kicked away piano benches and played piano behind his back to bring alive music that most of America had never seen or heard before. Under Schaeffer’s direction Kreis was Lewis with total control and yet real-life reckless abandon. He was a man who swatted away the staid, stale style of soft crooners and melodic boy and girl groups bringing unheard power and pop to the 45 RPM record and its three minutes of playing time.
Schaeffer guided and shaped the production beyond a simple juke-box tribute to be a swirling spirited adventure of a show. His cast and creative team brought out the high fidelity wails and snarls that set rock music on its path over 50 years ago. "I never thought I’d be back at the Tony’s, let alone having a show up for Best Musical. It was a great night … this is the little show that could. It’s been an amazing journey," said Schaeffer.
As the Tony Awards opening act on Sunday night, audiences saw first-hand Kreis’s brilliance as he played a tag team "Blue Suede Shoes" with Sean Hayes hopping around the piano strutting his stuff. In his Tony Award acceptance speech he thanked the "team working together as a whole and in harmony."
"Million Dollar Quartet" continues at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City as well as at its original location the Apollo Theater in Chicago. "Million Dollar Quartet" is slated for a national tour beginning in 2011 with an expected stop — Cleveland, the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While national bookings are not available at this time, certainly the D.C. area, with its vast musical theater audiences and its full-throated music club scene, could be considered a profitable venue for this celebration of the raucous in the journey of such a purely American music style. At least we can hope.
As for Jerry Lee Lewis, he is the last man standing of the four who came together on a December 1956 night to change forever popular music. The 64th Annual Tony’s were held on Sunday night, June 13, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and broadcast live on CBS-TV.