Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Million Dollar Quartet
Lamb's Players Theatre
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of The Underpants

Ben Van Diepen, Brett Benowitz, Walker Brinskele,
and Charles Evans Jr.

Photo by Ken Jacques
A major thrust for the Lamb's Players Theatre this year has been to branch out into different genres of music. Recent productions, including A Jewel in the Crown City, Chaps!, and miXtape (now playing in Coronado), celebrate a range of music as diverse as Broadway show tunes, country and western and cowboy songs, and 1980s pop singles. Lamb's staging of the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, currently appearing at the AVO Playhouse in Vista, continues this trend and is focused on classic rock and roll. The evening focuses on an actual recording session that took place on December 4, 1956, with Johnny Cash (Charles Evans Jr.), Elvis Presley (Walker Brinskele), Jerry Lee Lewis (Ben Van Diepen), and Carl Perkins (Brett Benowitz). While the show features four musical legends, the central figure is arguably Sam Phillips (Lance Arthur Smith), the founder of the Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Sam is partially responsible for each of the musicians' success, and he hopes the jam session will prove to be a big benefit for the label.

With the exception of some heavy-handed foreshadowing to songs that would become famous after 1956, Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott's book mixes fact, fiction and songs in a natural style. The whole story is presented in a convincing way that allows the audience to be immersed and invested in the lives of the four musicians, with Mutrux and Escott's writing treating these music idols as human beings. Their conversations deal with more than music, and include a sequence in which some of them talk about deceased family members, and another with Jerry Lee Lewis sharing his views about the afterlife. The contrasting personas of the men give rise to plenty of humor, much of it from Jerry Lee Lewis' mischievous comments. Through it all, Associate Artistic Director and Director of Educational Outreach Kerry Meads' direction always keeps theatregoers entertained. The great music doesn't make this particularly difficult.

Given the intimate theater space and the fact that the show takes place in primarily one location, it's impressive that the recording studio does not have a claustrophobic feel. This is largely owing to Meads' clever placement of the artists on the stage, and her creative incorporation of live music and dialogue, especially in the brief flashback sequences between Sam and members of the quartet. Helping Meads with the look and feel of the show are Jemima Dutra's costumes and Mathys Herbert's set. Patrick Duffy's miking makes every song sound like we we're witnessing a live concert. Most of the people in the cast sing and play their own instruments, much like the original four legends.

Thankfully, the main players don't turn the rock-and-rollers into caricatures. Benowitz makes Carl Perkins seem like a cocky man, but one who takes his work very seriously. Evans Jr. and Brinskele portray Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley as down to earth, which lets the audiences empathize with and care about them. As impressive as the others are with their subtle acting, strong vocals, and musical abilities, it's difficult to look away from Diepen, with his comic timing, distinctive singing style, and effervescent piano playing (just like the real Jerry Lee Lewis, he sometimes plays with his feet). The four sing and harmonize irresistibly in classics such as "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Down by the Riverside." In an interesting casting choice, Smith, who has proven to be a powerful singer in many regional productions, plays the non-singing Phillips. He depicts Sam with a fatherly presence and a consistent devotion to the music. The show features amusing supporting turns from Brian Dall and Mackenzie Leighton as musicians Fluke and Brother Jay, and Katie Sapper is very likable as Elvis' fictitious girlfriend Dyanne. Her catchy rendition of "I Hear You Knocking" is one of the musical highlights of the evening.

Lamb's continues a music-heavy year with a crowd-pleasing story that's nothing short of terrific.

Lamb's Players Theatre's Million Dollar Quartet, through September 1, 2019, at AVO Playhouse, 303 Main St., Vista CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays at . Tickets start at $28.00 and can be purchased online at or by phone at 619-437-6000.