NEW YORK — Levi Kreis is a talented pianist, singer, songwriter and actor. There's just one show business skill he may need to work on: predictor of musicals.
Kreis says he certainly liked what he heard when he attended the first table reading of a little embryonic show seven years ago at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles. He just didn't think it would go too far.
"If you would have cornered me and told me, 'You have to tell me whether you think this is going to go to Broadway or not,' I probably would have told you 'no,'" he says with a laugh. "I just would have thought, 'Surely, not. Pinch me.'"
It's far too late for a pinch: That little show was "Million Dollar Quartet" and it's virtually unstoppable these days, with productions running on Broadway, in Chicago and in London all at the same time. A national tour will hit over 30 cities starting in October.
The musical tells the story of a real-life impromptu jam session on Dec. 4, 1956, between Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley at Sun Records' storefront studio in Memphis, Tenn.
"I just think it's a magical, amazing piece of history," says Gigi Pritzker, one of the show's producers. "It's like comfort food: It's familiar; it's interesting; it's fun."
The music is the very soundtrack of rock 'n' roll: "Blue Suede Shoes," ''Fever," ''Sixteen Tons," ''Great Balls of Fire," ''Riders in the Sky," ''I Walk the Line," ''Folsom Prison Blues," ''Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Who Do You Love?"
"As much as watching the show, I also enjoy just turning around and watching the audience," says Gina Vernaci, vice president for theatricals at PlayhouseSquare in downtown Cleveland, which will be the national tour's first stop on Oct. 11. "Music is so transformative that the audience, despite whatever age they are, becomes 16 years old."
Kreis has been there every step of the way, playing Lewis from the Los Angeles reading to a workshop in Seattle, which led to a try-out in Florida, then an official start in Chicago and finally a Broadway run that netted him a Tony last year for best featured actor in a musical.
"I think it's going to go and go and go," says Kreis. "I always get a little nervous when something becomes a franchise, but I've also never seen a team so soulful as this team. So I don't have any worries."
The show may be expanding, but Kreis himself has jumped off. Bursting with song ideas for a fourth album and ready to recharge his batteries, he left the show earlier this month, the first of the original quartet to leave. It was a bittersweet parting.
"I realized it's time for me to create some new things and get a new energy going in my life," he says.
Kreis, who originated Lewis and plays him with a funny, cocky streak augmented by blistering piano work, is the first of the original quartet to go. He has sacrificed his own health playing the role, having blown out both knees.
In Seattle, he vaulted over the piano during an encore, did a somersault and tore his meniscus and ACL — or anterior cruciate ligament — in his left leg. Later, in Chicago, he suffered the same injury in his right leg. Each time he needed reconstructive surgery. His last performance on Broadway was March 4 because he reinjured his left ACL.
Kreis is passing along some hard-won knowledge: He has warned Ben Goddard, the Jerry Lee Lewis in London, to tape up his fingers and use nail glue to protect his hands. "If with this role you're playing what is to be played, you're not going to have any nails. They're going to be bleeding," he says.
He is confident that "Million Dollar Quartet" won't be diluted by the different versions out there. A few months ago he and Pritzker stopped by the Apollo Theater in Chicago to check out Lance Lipinsky play Jerry Lee Lewis and came away impressed.
"Levi turned to me and he goes, 'OK, that kid is incredible, and, might I say, maybe even better than me,'" Pritzker says, laughing. It's a story confirmed by Kreis, who adds that watching Lipinsky rejuvenated his own take on Lewis back on Broadway.
"Each cast creates an entirely different energy," he says. "You get a consistent product while having a little bit of that organic, unexpected quality every time you see it."
So far, producers say the national tour will include stops later this year in Rochester, N.Y.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Indianapolis. Next year, it will pull into Tampa, Fla.; Detroit; Memphis, Tenn.; Minneapolis and Costa Mesa, Calif. More dates are to be announced later.
Kreis says he leaves the show a better man, and not just because he has a Tony. The native of Oliver Springs, Tenn., says the show's music has bled into his own songwriting and he has been energized while playing a youthful, piano-pounding rock icon such as Jerry Lee Lewis.
"The fact that I have to go into that energy eight times a week, I've been able to find my own personal power, my own confidence," he says. "Playing him gave a 6-foot, scrawny, 125-pound, pock-faced teenage kid the confidence to believe that he was somebody. And I love that about my Jerry Lee Lewis."
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