Rock and roll pioneer Jason Cohen has portrayed Jerry Lee Lewis dozens of times on stage.
But when it came to creating a show called “Great Balls of Fire,” which opened Friday, June 3, at the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre, he decided to play himself.
Cohen says the musical, which features Lewis’ songs alongside other music genres that influenced his early career, is not a tribute show. Rather, it is a “combination of two different forms”.
Cohen and four other musicians will share stories from Lewis’ life as they perform his songs. The show also contains popular songs by other early rock artists, along with gospel and other music genres that informed Lewis as a performer.
Cohen played Lewis in Apple’s 2016 Dutch production of “Million Dollar Quartet” and on a national tour, and participated in nine different productions of the musical as a cast member or director.
This musical hub was on the night of 1956, when Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins stumbled into a recording session at Sam Phillips’ famous Sun Records studio in Memphis.
While touring with the musical in 2016, Cohen says by phone from New York City, he started thinking about creating some kind of show about Lewis.
“I saw that there was a lot of interest from the public in this music,” Cohen says. “I thought, ‘What can I do so that I can also be creatively in control? Am I trying to put on a tribute show…or an autobiographical musical?
“I brought it up to my friend Michael Shirali who has done a bunch of solo shows in his career, he’s a really great director and a guy I’d love to work with,” Cohen says.
Cohen initially wrote a “very long, written” draft of a tribute show for Lewis, eventually experimenting with it in front of an audience in early 2020. But Chirali encouraged him to go in a different direction.
“It kind of gave me the idea of the arc or the texture connected to the story, that Jerry Lee and I grew up at very different times with very different backgrounds, but through this music, he was really a groundbreaking influence on my life,” Cohen says. Everything that has happened to me – personally and professionally – since I joined the tour has been because of the production of the Million Dollar Quartet.
“Jerry Lee grew up in church, and I’m a suburban (New Jersey) Jewish boy, so we are very, very different types of people,” Cohen says. But music unites them.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Cohen rewrote “The Great Balls of Fire” with its new focus.
“It’s a musical celebration… and much more a personal story unlike the character I’m playing,” he said, “I don’t shoot Jerry Lee Lewis at all… The show is myself and four other musician-singer-actor-performers, and it’s a stage party” .
The Great Balls of Fire is filled with the songs of Lewis – nicknamed “The Killer” who is now 86 years old – who burst onto the music scene in the mid-1950s with a blend of piano-driven rock and roll, show-stopping spirit and bad boy personality.
The show includes tunes such as “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “High School Confidential,” “What’d I Say,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.”
“We do all different kinds of songs from the 1950s—songs from styles that would influence Jerry Lee and his music…And we kind of tell stories about Jerry Lee’s life, and my experiences playing Jerry Lee Lewis, the group—the five of us—having come together from During the production of the Million Dollar Quartet, Cohen says, “What was our experience while walking around the country doing this musical — the people we met, the places we’ve been to and done? all of that. It’s a good time, a big celebration of this music – a really great opportunity to enjoy this style that really wows the crowd.”
“Lewis was very much influenced by gospel music and Hank Williams’ music,” Cohen says. That’s on the show as well, he says, along with music from Lewis’ contemporaries like Elvis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.
“We do a whole section of music from New Orleans,” Cohen says. “He (Lewis) covered a couple of New Orleans standards like ‘Jambalaya’ and ‘When the Saints go Marching In,’ both of which we did on the show.”
Other members of the “Great Balls of Fire” cast include drummer John Rossi, who toured with “Million Dollar Quartet” and was the music director while filming Johnny Cash drummer, WS “Fluke” Holland, in Apple’s 2020 Dutch production. to show.
others are Justin Brown, who plays woodwinds and has performed on Broadway and on national tours; and Ben Shepard on bass and Spive Wigan on guitar and violin, both of whom are veteran regional stage actors.
They have performed in Florida, Connecticut and Arizona; They head to New Jersey and California after the Lancaster race; And Cohen says they are already booking dates until 2023.
Cohen grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and says he started playing the piano at the age of 11 or 12 when he asked his cousin to help him locate the middle C on a keyboard.
“I played professionally for the first time when I was 16,” he says. “I would play for cocktail hours, nursing homes and orchestral pits in local community theaters.”
He now plays dozens of instruments, including guitar, double bass, banjo, trombone, banjo, and accordion. He says much of his musical ability is self-taught. He studied theater both at magnet school during high school and at New York University.
He has served as an actor, director, or music director for a number of productions, both on national tours and on the East Coast, including graduation shows for Buddy Holly and John Denver.
“Great Balls of Fire” is presented by Cohen’s production company, Emmett Productions. He’s also collaborating on a mystery murder show, and in a new musical comedy about the janitor of a rival apartment building.
When he was first selected in the Million Dollar Quartet, Cohen says, he did a lot of research into Lewis’ life, reading books and watching videos.
“What made Jerry Lee so great was his downfall at the end. …and by that I mean he doesn’t care what people think,” Cohen says. “He was so self-confident and confident, and in the end, that whole mindset… led him to this bad press” after he married his 13-year-old cousin—the third of Louis’s seven marriages—in 1957.
“I think it was really important to see…that his performing skills were very new to the pianist,” Cohen says. “The fact that he really took the piano and turned into a percussion instrument, the way he would hit the piano and play with his feet. It’s like a renaissance church service,” Cohen says. “It’s important to see how he led the way for people to come after him as an instrumentalist.
“It was great to connect with older members of the audience. … It’s always great to see these ‘teens’ with their AARP cards, who have grown up with this music or have personal connections to this music or who are just standing and dancing,” Cohen says.
“It’s good to be able, for 90 minutes, to spice up what really is, day in and day out, to become a more disturbing time to live. We don’t take that for granted.”
if you go
• What: The musical “The Great Balls of Fire”.
• Venue: Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre, 510 Centerville Street.
• When: Opens on Friday. It runs until June 25th. From Wednesday to Sunday at different times, in the evening and hours.
• Cost: Dinner and Show $25-70 (for children through adult tickets); Show only, $22-50.
• Information and tickets: 717-898-1900; dutchapple.com.