‘Million Dollar Quartet’ at The Palace: Experience history’s biggest night in rock’n’roll you’ve never heard of

One for the money ... and four talented performers on tap for the 'Million Dollar Quartet' show!

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MANCHESTER, NH Who doesn’t love a great, little-known story that’s based on a real event and spins into a high-energy musical production?

As the story goes, on December 4, 1956, four young emerging musicians gathered at Sun Records in Memphis, TN, for what would be one of the greatest jam sessions ever. That simple fact is the jumping off place for the Broadway show, “Million Dollar Quartet,” set to hit the Palace Theatre stage Jun 2 for a three-week engagement that will get you all shook up – in a good way.

Historic 1956 photo of, from left, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash at Sun Studios.

The show brings that legendary night to life, featuring a score of 20 rock hits including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Walk the Line,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Matchbox,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog” and more.

[Tickets are available for Sunday’s final performance – click here!]

All the action takes place on that one special night inside the recording studio, and will be brought to life by four talented actors, all making their Palace Theatre stage debut – Ben van Diepen, as Jerry Lee Lewis, Luke Linsteadt as Elvis Presley, Brett Benowitz as Carl Perkins, and Colin Barkell as Johnny Cash.

The four recently sat down together in the green room, located in the belly of the Palace Theatre, to talk a little bit about the experience of preparing to portray four of the founding fathers of rock’n’roll as part of this show, introducing audiences to a story that may not be so familiar to theater-goers.

Although still in rehearsal mode, the actors have already managed to squeeze in some sneak-preview performances, having opened for a recent NH Fisher Cats game that unfortunately got rained out after they threw out the first pitch, and taking the stage for a May 23 Palace board meeting. Getting into character hasn’t been too much of a stretch for the four actor/singers, who say they all were introduced as kids to the classic rock’n’roll that drives the show.

“‘Million Dollar Quartet’ is based on a real-life story, when Sam Phillips, who was the owner of Sun Records, brought the four singers together for an impromptu recording session,” says van Diepen. “Sam Phillips is called the father of rock’n’roll because he really launched all their careers, and by the time this night happened, the four singers were already beginning to make a name for themselves, so it was a big deal to get them all together. That’s why it was coined the million dollar quartet.”

The Million Dollar Quartet, from left, Colin Barkell as Johnny Cash, Luke Linsteadt as Elvis Presley, Brett Benowitz as Carl Perkins and Ben van Diepen as Jerry Lee Lewis. Photo/Carol Robidoux

The resulting show is a dramatization of how that night might have played out – enhanced by the magic of musical theater – but being grounded in history makes the show all the more appealing, not only for the performers, but to audiences, as well, says van Diepen. “When the audience is with you, it’s magic,” he says.

As with any musical, getting the music right is key. The four actors have been having a blast recreating the playlist of some of the most popular songs of the early days of rock’n’roll, indelible hits that have never gone stale because they are so timeless, says Barkell.

“I grew up listening to this stuff, absolutely – mostly listening to the radio in the car with my parents. But I’m a songwriter as well, so I classify myself music as rock’n’roll, rockabilly kind of songs, very retro,” Barkell says. “The music is timeless, so simple and effective. That’s why they’re still around, and so popular.”

“Part of the magic of the show is that we try to make the audience feel like they’re witnessing an informal jam session,” says Benowitz. “We perform solo and together, but the songs don’t drive the plot. The show tells the story of how each performer got to know each other, and where things go after that.”

Benowitz says it’s also been interesting to learn more about the character he portrays, Carl Perkins, who lacks general name recognition compared to the other three characters. But Perkins penned “Blue Suede Shoes” among other big hits, and in real life, developed a bit of a rivalry with Elvis Presley due to a twist of fate.

“Perkins actually was in a car crash when he was supposed to perform ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ on the Ed Sullivan show, and Elvis sang it instead. Carl Perkins was actually a better guitar player than Elvis. Up to this point, Elvis was really a nobody,” says van Diepen.

“Yeah, so Carl was a little bit bitter toward Elvis. Literally, that’s a line from the show, ‘That should have been my big break,'” says Benowitz. “All the diehard rock’n’roll historians love Carl Perkins, but he was never as well-known to the general public because he didn’t have the hits, wasn’t known as ‘The King,’ and wasn’t as good-looking. He couldn’t dance as well as Elvis did. So this show is really kind of cool because it gives Carl Perkins the break that he never had in real life.”

When asked to name their favorite element of the show, all four performers had the same answer. 

“Wait for the encore,” says Barkell. It takes a turn. It’s really cool.” 

Tickets for the show range from $25 -45 and are available online or at the Palace Theatre box office. Click here to find the best seat in the house.


About Carol Robidoux 6044 Articles
Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!