By Kristina Dorsey — The Day
Published March 30 2016
Skip Robinson makes showbiz look positively easy. Last May, he graduated from college. By July, he was hired as a star of the national tour of “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Robinson earned a degree in communications from La Salle University, but, that degree aside, he still harbored dreams of performing.
He figured that, if he couldn’t book a job within a year, he’d probably look elsewhere for employment. But first, while teaching drumming, the New Jersey native auditioned. And auditioned. And auditioned.
One of those try-outs was for a tour of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the musical about the day in 1956 that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all recorded together.
Robinson auditioned to play Cash — but was hired to slip into Elvis’ blue-suede shoes.
And, funnily enough, actor Evan Buckley Harris, who auditioned for Presley, was hired to portray Cash.
“I think they made the appropriate switch. It’s very, very clear we were both meant to play these parts, not the ones we thought we were meant to play,” Robinson says.
Robinson sounds more akin to Elvis, and Harris can sing more like the bass-note-rumbling Cash.
“They said I looked more like an Elvis and I just had an Elvis kind of charisma about me. I had the sneer. It’s funny — Elvis always had that left-side sneer. I do that quite often, apparently … I do that kind of unwillingly, unknowingly,” Robinson says via phone during a bus ride with his “Quartet” colleagues from Florida to North Carolina.
The show is based on the day that Sam Phillips, who helped launch the careers of Presley, Cash, Lewis and Perkins, saw those four stars come together at the fabled Sun Records studio in Memphis. Already an established star who’d moved on to a bigger label, Presley stopped by the studio by chance and happened upon a Perkins recording date. Cash and the relatively unknown Lewis had been booked to provide backing instrumentation and, when The King joined them in the studio and in on the spontaneous jam, history was made.
“Quartet” showcases the stars’ biggest hits, from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” to “Hound Dog” to “Folsom Prison Blues” to “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Robinson and “Quartet” will be arriving in New London for a performance Friday at the Garde Arts Center.
Robinson comes from a musical family; his parents are both classically trained piano players. His father can play 10 instruments, all told. Even though they ended up not pursuing music as a career, his parents met playing in the pit band of a “Man of La Mancha” production.
Skip started in a pit band, too, playing drums. He, though, says he wanted to be onstage and wanted the attention.
He happens to have been a big Elvis fan and has been listening to Presley since he was 10 or 11.
The greatest challenge in portraying him in “Quartet” is getting to the heart of the Presley character without turning into a stereotypical Elvis impersonator.
“You don’t want to be this fake, cheesy kind of Elvis. I want to play him as ’56 Elvis. For me, I feel like that was the coolest man in the world at the time,” Robinson says.
He notes that, since he is portraying Elvis at a very specific point in time, he researched the singer during that era.
“I’m working in a very small box. This show is set in Dec. 4, 1956, so anything before that is fair game, all the early recordings, all the early videos, the early concerts. I even dip a little into ’57 just because there’s not a ton of material, video-wise, to look at,” he says. “It’s nice, condensed material I could sort through and find all my favorite things and really use them. … I think trying to do the ’60s and ’70s Elvis would be a bit much for me. I don’t think I could pull off the ’70s look quite yet.”
Robinson points out, too, that he doesn’t go full-concert-Elvis (no crazy windmill move, no jumping onto his toes) during the recording-session scenes in “Quartet,” since Presley is performing with his friends and not in front of an audience. As the show revs to its conclusion and morphs into a concert format, though, he can — and does — let loose.
The actors playing the four superstars also play their instruments onstage. Robinson says he uses a beautiful Gibson guitar “that is worth more than I’ll ever have my back account.”
Robinson has been the drummer in a lot of bands and says of the “Quartet” lead performers, “We all kind of come from a little bit different backgrounds, but we all share the same intensity about rock and roll music. … These dudes rock, there’s no doubt about it. They’re high-energy. It feels and it sounds like a rock show.”
That’s great for Robinson, since he wanted to be a rock star.
“When you tell people you want to be a rock star, and that’s literally what I told people, it gets a bad stigma, it gets a, ‘That’s not possible, that’s not feasible,'” he says.
Of course, the delicious irony is that now he’s playing The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Robinson is about midway through the tour, which will cover more than 200 performances.
The largest audience “Quartet” has played to was 4,500 folks at the Casper, Wyoming hockey arena, where Carrie Underwood was playing the following week, Robinson recalls.
And while there are people in the “Quartet” crowd who remember the songs from when they were first released, there are younger fans, too: Robinson says some of his favorite audience members have been 5- and 6-year-olds who run to the stage at the end of the show and dance.
“Million Dollar Quartet,” 8 p.m. Friday, Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; $38-$65; (860) 444-7373.