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'Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On'

An impromptu jam session in late 1956 — featuring singers and songwriters Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash — created a bit of rock 'n' roll heaven on Earth.

The jam session was a serendipitous moment in American music history. Perkins, enjoying success on the heels of his hit “Blue Suede Shoes,” came into the studio at Sun Records in Nashville, Tennessee, to record new material on that day in December. His producer, Sam Phillips, brought in Lewis, a largely unknown piano player, to punch up Perkins’ rockabilly instrumentation. Presley strolled into the Memphis studio later that day, and so did Cash, to simply listen in on Perkins’ recording session.

It wasn’t long before the four were jammin.’

Jack Clement, who was engineer that day, later recalled thinking: “I’d be remiss not to record this,” and so he did.

What Clement recorded is considered a seminal moment in rock 'n' roll history.

“It was an extraordinary twist of fate that brought together those four musicians who would go on to have such an impact on the music of the 20th century,” says Rick Robinson, managing director of Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland. “It was a magical day.”

OCT opens its 2018 season with “Million Dollar Quartet,” the Tony Award-winning musical dramatizing that fateful day at Sun Records.

The show previews Thursday, Feb. 8, opens Friday, Feb. 9, and runs through April 15, at OCT, corner of First and Hargadine streets. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and select Mondays and at 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Preview tickets are $22. All other tickets are $22 or $36 and can be purchased at oregoncabaret.com or by calling 541-488-2902. Reservations are required for pre-show dinner and brunch. Appetizers, beverages and desserts are available without reservations.

“Million Dollar Quartet” was written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott. Tagged as a jukebox musical, the title comes from a newspaper article that appeared in the Memphis Press-Scimitar Dec. 5, 1956 — the day following the jam session — under the headline “Million Dollar Quartet.” Phillips had tipped the newspaper off.

The recording of the original session was first released in Europe in '81 as “The Million Dollar Quartet” with 17 tracks. A few years later, more tracks were discovered and released as “The Complete Million Dollar Session.”

Robinson says the show is more than a seamless “jukebox musical where you pack in 30 songs one right after another.”

“A story is told. The songs are stitched together dramatically,” he says. And while the music is fun, the mood that December night was underscored by dramatic tension between the artists and Phillips.

Phillips, considered by many as the “father” of rock 'n' roll, played a pivotal role in the artists’ careers — all of whom contributed to the seismic shift in popular music of the late '50s.

“Million Dollar Quartet” is the story of the foursome before they were icons.

It’s a tale filled with music, the raw emotion of young artists, secrets and betrayals, Robinson says.

“There’s this energy of a young Elvis, Cash, Perkins and Jerry Lee coming together in that special place,” says Todd Nielson, the show’s director.

Guided by Phillips, who “is part football coach, part father figure, there was a chemical reaction,” he adds.

The musical chemistry is replicated by a cast that plays its own instruments, performing such hits as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog,” “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “I Walk the Line” and “Great Balls of Fire,” Robinson says.

Christopher Fordinal plays Presley, Christopher Wren is Perkins, William Boyajian is Cash, and Jared Freiburg is Jerry Lee Lewis.

They express the soul and spirit of the quartet," Nielson says. “It’s terrific.”

Fordinal, Wren and Freiburg previously toured with separate “Million Dollar Quartet” companies.

“At the very first rehearsal, their energy catapulted the cast and crew," Nielson says. “It’s infectious. It’s amazing.”

But, he adds, the play is more than a bunch of rock 'n' roll songs.

“It’s a wonderful moving story about people’s passion to pursue their dreams.”

Associate Artistic Director Galloway Stevens plays Phillips. Additional cast members are Alyssa Birrer (Dyanne, Presley’s girlfriend), Jared Brown (Fluke Holland) and Darby Spence (Jay Perkins).

The intimacy of the Cabaret brings the audience into the Sun Records studio. As eavesdroppers to the recording session, the audience is like another character in the show, Nielson says.

Breaking down the fourth wall are choreographer and assistant director Leah Kolb, musical director William Boyajian, set designer DeAnne Kennedy, costume designer Mary Claflin, lighting designer Chris Wood, technical director Christopher Burkhardt, sound designer Mike Kunkel, and props designer G. Andrew Bangs.

Jared Freiburg, left, plays Jerry Lee Lewis, Christopher Wren is Carl Perkins, Christopher Fordinal is Elvis Presley, and Will Boyajian is Johnny Cash in Oregon Cabaret Theatre's production of 'Million Dollar Quartet.' [Photo by Christopher Briscoe]