Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival review: ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ makes a splash at Sand Harbor

Troy Matthews
Special to Lake Tahoe Action
"Million Dollar Quartet" centers on the day Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley found themselves together in the same recording studio.
Photo by Joy Strotz

If you have any love for early rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, 1950s country R&B or good music and fun in general, get online right now and buy a ticket to “Million Dollar Quartet.”

The show is currently playing at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival at Sand Harbor from now until Aug. 27.

The Festival, which for the last few years has countered their brilliantly staged Shakespeare performances with well-timed and entertaining musical revues running in repertory, has found progressive success with the nostalgic performances of supremely talented actor/musicians who transport the audiences back in time.

I was enthralled by last year’s offering, “Beehive,” the ‘60s musical that featured beautiful renditions from select female performers, ranging from The Angels, to Aretha Franklin, to Janis Joplin and everything in between. I thought that performance would be difficult to top, and by the time intermission rolled around of “Quartet,” I was still holding firm to that belief.

Though the performances of Gabe Aronson, Sam Sherwood, Sky Seals, Sean Michael Buckley and James Ludwig, playing Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and their combined discoverer/mentor, Sam Phillips, are brilliant, the first act’s focus on character development and low-key ballad numbers left me hoping and praying for a Johnny Cash at The Opry moment: stomping out the footlights. In other words, someone bring the damn house down.

In the second act my prayers were answered. But first let me set the scene.

The play chronicles a real-life event (and the set design masterfully incorporates a real-life photo of the four to prove it) when the Sun Records stars Lewis, Perkins, Cash and Presley, all arrive at Phillips’ Memphis recording studio on the same night.

The play does justice to folks who may love these stars individually but may not know their history by thoroughly playing out their connection. These four musicians, legends in their own right, actually all started on the same tiny record label.

But by the time the world of the play rolls around, Elvis is the biggest star in the world and has left Sun for RCA Records. Johnny Cash is close behind, finishing out his Sun contract. Carl Perkins, the original Sun star, is now searching for a way to rise back to the top. And Jerry Lee Lewis … ah Jerry Lee. The eccentric youngster is just starting his career and, much to the chagrin of the older fellas, is just too damn talented to be ignored.

Throw in a singer known as Dyanne, a companion of Elvis played by Kristen Beth Williams, who gives a rendition of “Fever” that left me with chills, and you have the nirvana moment of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll as these founding fathers decide to put aside their differences and just jam together.

The second act starts like the first, interspersing dialogue with classics and giving us a sense of conflict and story — something absent from the previous musical revues.

By the end of the show the audience is transported to a transcendent time travel moment of explosive energy. The house is brought down. I realized quickly that the set up served the grand purpose of a showstopping finale. I was left shaking my head and speechless.

This show topped “Beehive” and lingers as one of the best offerings from the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in years, Shakespeare or contemporary. And I’m a Shakespeare guy.

Witnessing all this beautiful musicianship (yes, these talented actors are actually playing their instruments), stellar performances, and stunning stagecraft is made all the more magical being set in one the most exceptional settings on earth: under the stars on the shores of Lake Tahoe at Sand Harbor.

The lake lingers in the background throughout the first act, and intermission is perfectly timed to allow the audience to witness the sunset before settling in for the finale in the moonlight.

The ambience of the place, from the seats dug in to sand dunes, to the delicious food at the on-sight restaurant, to taking in a night of pure rock ‘n’ roll magic under the stars, make “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival an absolute can’t miss experience for Tahoe locals and visitors alike.

Troy Matthews is a South Lake Tahoe resident. He is married to Rae Matthews, who works as the community engagement manager for the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.

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