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August 28, 2014

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Creative licenses being issued in ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ at Harrah’s

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Steve Marcus

Martin Kaye, left, performs as Jerry Lee Lewis during a rehearsal for “Million Dollar Quartet” in a warehouse near The Orleans on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. “Million Dollar Quartet” is based on a performance by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley at Sun Records in Memphis on Dec. 4, 1956. The new show begins at Harrah’s Las Vegas on Feb. 4.

Rehearsal for 'Million Dollar Quartet'

Tyler Hunter, center, performs as Elvis Presley during a rehearsal for Launch slideshow »
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Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis and Felice Garcia perform during a rehearsal for "Million Dollar Quartet" in a warehouse near The Orleans on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. "Million Dollar Quartet" is based on a performance by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley at Sun Records in Memphis on Dec. 4, 1956. The new show begins at Harrah's Las Vegas on Feb. 4.

Writers of biographical Broadway musicals often seize creative license while drafting the stories of those depicted onstage. I guess that’s why it’s called “creative license.”

That is the case for “Million Dollar Quartet,” which celebrates its opening night at Harrah’s on Tuesday night. Astute rock ’n’ roll historians are likely to question the personality traits of the four legends at the center of the musical: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

The way in which cast member Martin Kaye (who played Lewis in the touring version of the show that played the Smith Center in June) stretches the Lewis character is of particular interest. Kaye is called upon to play Lewis as an affable, often goofy, country bumpkin -- sort of the lost Clampett on “The Beverly Hillbillies." But the actual Jerry Lee Lewis, as the public has come to know him, is often cynical, sharp-tongued and one who does not suffer fools gladly.

This is not a criticism of Kaye, a fierce pianist, singer and stage veteran who could sell the role any which way. But it is an example of how a character’s disposition can be reshaped to fit a fictionalized account of a moment in his life. In this case, that moment is when the four budding superstars met at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn. on Dec. 4, 1956.

“The show is set when these guys were starting out, so that does give us more leeway in how they are depicted in the story,” Eric Schaeffer, director of “MDQ,” explained last month during a rehearsal of the production. “This is not a story about what (Lewis) grew into. It’s when all four of them had this big ol’ open road ahead of them. We don’t know much about them from that period, so we are finally putting those personalities out there.”

Most fans will probably excuse such discrepancies in character development when they hear the music. In “Million Dollar Quartet,” every song’s a classic.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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