'Million Dollar Quartet' at the Fox: Understudy rocks

For the News-DemocratApril 19, 2013 

Growing up near Springfield, John Michael Presney would travel to the Fox Theatre with his family to see touring Broadway shows. Now, he is headed here as part of the "Million Dollar Quartet" national tour -- as the understudy for rockabilly icon Carl Perkins.

"It is going to be the trippiest thing for me. It is the most beautiful theater in the country," he said during a phone interview from New Orleans. "I'm pretty excited to get up on that stage."

However, it won't be his first time. That occurred last spring when he played Carl Perkins for the Fox's season announcement, previewing "Million Dollar Quartet" with a few musical numbers that fired up the crowd.

Presney predicts that people will be dancing in the aisles, as audiences are prone to do during the show's grand finale, which is when the cast plays some of the legends' greatest hits like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" and "Houndog." "It's like one big concert -- everyone's up on their feet."

"Million Dollar Quartet" will play at Tuesday through May 5. The show is set on Dec. 4, 1956, when a twist of fate brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley together for one of the greatest rock 'n' roll jam sessions in history. Sam Phillips, the "Father of Rock 'n' Roll," brought the four together at the Sun Records storefront studio in Memphis for the first and only time.

"It is one fun evening. It is really a live band mixed in with a story. It is a 'fly on the wall' experience -- you learn a lot about them, and there's a lot of history," he said.

"The music has something for everyone. Everybody's a musician actor -- there is no pit, no tracking. It is more live than most rock concerts," he said.

His family and friends will be making the familiar trek to the show, In fact, his dad is picking him up in St. Louis when he arrives and he'll spend the night in his childhood bedroom, in Rochester.

"It'll be so nice to not be in a hotel," he said. Not that he's complaining, but he has been on the road for 18 months. However, he loves the show.

"It's energetic and vibrant and gritty," he said. "I am proud to be a part of it."

Two months after earning a fine arts degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he now calls home, he landed the job.

"I never wanted another job so bad, to play guitar like Carl Perkins! It's thrilling. I'm a big rock 'n' roll nerd," he said.

"I've been playing guitar since I was a kid. Carl Perkins was revolutionary in terms of rock 'n' roll -- he influenced the Beatles," he said. "He might not have been in the limelight like the other three, but it's nice to pay homage. I get to bring that back to light, enlighten people on who he was."

The cast gets to showcase what he calls "deeper cuts,' not just the familiar hits. For instance, there's "Blue Suede Shoes," but there is also "Matchbox," his favorite Perkins song to play.

Presney said he was fortunate his family was involved in local theater, and they were supportive of his career path. Somewhere in the family tree is a Ziegfield Follies girl. He spent his first two years of college at Southern Illinois University Carbondale double-majoring in music and theater.

Bringing that historic night to life is a responsibility he doesn't take lightly. "We are respectful to the original artists. We wanted to make it as authentic as possible."

The combination of music and theater "gives the audience the best of both worlds," he said.

At a glance

When: Tuesday through May 5. At 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 7:30 p.m. April 28; 2 p.m. May 2.

Where: The Fox Theatre, 531 Grand Blvd., St. Louis

Tickets: $15-$80; MetroTix.com, 314-534-1111 or Fox Theatre box office

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