'Million Dollar Quarter' Returns to the Kennedy Center With a New Jerry Lee Lewis

John Countryman  (plays Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet)
John Countryman (plays Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet)

The folks with “Million Dollar Quartet” announced on Twitter that it was one city down for the start of its national tour after taking down the house at the Pullo Center in York, Pa. Next stop: the Kennedy Center for an encore performance.

That explained why we were talking by phone last week to John Countryman, the 24-year-old newbie in the cast of the show, in York. “Million Dollar Quartet,” the Tony Award-winning Broadway show about a one-of-a-kind get-together of legends on Dec. 4, 1956, at the Sun Records Studio of producer Sam Phillips in Memphis, stars Tyler Hunter as Elvis Presley, Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash, James Barry as Carl Perkins and Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis. The latest actor to play Lewis, Countryman's had changed dramatically this year in a very short time.

Countryman, who played piano and sung with a still active rock group, “The Dirty Names,” had auditioned for the role of Lewis, the piano-riffing, rock-and-rolling notorious rocker of “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On” fame and understudied a short stint in Chicago. “I auditioned again but I hadn’t heard anything so I kinda thought nothing was happening,” he said. By then, “I had to get a job, I was working in a bank.”

And Countryman got married. He and his wife Jennice were on their honeymoon when he got the call making him the next Jerry Lewis.

“It was crazy,” he said. “It was a dream come true. It was—you can’t imagine. I mean talk about changing your life around. But once, we all got together, this thing became like a family—like everybody looks out for everybody else.”

Countryman had been a fan of Lewis every since he started listening to the music when his mom played golden oldies. “That’s sort of how I got into all that kind of music," he said. "You get a real sense of how rich it all is. It still rocks, and I love playing the music, being Jerry Lee. The killer. It’s just a great experience, an amazing show.”

What is original about the show—which, by the by, was directed by Signature Theater Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer –is that the lead performers—Countryman, Hunter, Moreau and Barry, play live on stage. The audience experience is one of being—if you use imagine or your memory, whatever the case may be—in the presence of legends. It’s like a live concert within the framework of a snapshot day in the lives of legends. With a book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott—a rock-and-roll historian and something of an expert on Sun Records—and a salty, authentic-looking set by Derek McLane, “Million Dollar Quartet” catches the protagonists at a critical time. Elvis, who drops in with a girl who also sings, is already well on the way to becoming king of rock and roll. Lewis is a sassy, brassy newcomer who wants to impress Phillips, and Cash is also established. Phillips has already lost one star and is thinking about joining a major recording firm.

All of the stars shine, and the music is as familiar as a really loud lullaby or two—and Countryman gets to blast out “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lot of Shaking Going On” around turns by Perkins, Cash and Elvis—that is, Barry, Moreau and Hunter. “It’s the style and everything,” Countryman said. “It’s how he plays, he had a real talent, because moving around a piano the way he did, like nobody else. That was special and those rolls and everything, man. I love doing this. I love Jerry Lee Lewis, always have, first time I heard him.”

Countryman saw the man who was dubbed “The Killer” a while back. He was much older, and a little battered, moving slowly across the stage. “But, yeah, the minute he got there, the minute he sat at that piano, he killed," he said. "He was the killer, same guy. He could really play. That’s a good memory.”

“Million Dollar Quartet” is at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater Sept. 24 through Oct. 6.

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Sun, 21 Sep 2014 22:12:16 -0400

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