By Christine Barcia
Skip Robinson and Jason Cohen grew up within a few miles of each other, but it took leading roles in a touring musical for the two actors to realize they had a common bond in western Monmouth County.
Robinson, of Manalapan, and Cohen, of Marlboro, are performing in the national tour of the Broadway musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” which was inspired by a one-time recording session featuring Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash that took place on Dec. 4, 1956, at the Sun Studio, Memphis, Tenn.
Robinson, 23, is portraying Elvis Presley in the production.
“I learned the Elvis moves by studying early footage of him performing the songs live on Milton Berle’s show and Ed Sullivan’s show. Along with various live performances I watched him do in the 1956 time period, I also had assistance from our director/choreographer Lauren Sobon who cast me for the production in late July. She helped me fine-tune all the difficult twists, showed me how to properly loosen my hips, and how to do the moves with extreme confidence,” Robinson said.
Robinson, who is a professional musician, plays the drums and guitar in addition to be being a singer-songwriter.
“My parents always encouraged it. I first fought it, but then I was hooked in,” Robinson said, adding that he inherited an “obsession” for early rock and roll music from his grandparents.
“My grandmother liked Elvis and my grandfather liked Johnny Cash,” he said.
Robinson even had a 1950s band during his high school years at Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, and a rock band during his college years at LaSalle University, Philadelphia.
He performed in musicals and in theater throughout high school and college and “thrives on the energy.”
“I like the nervous energy – like the roller coaster feeling. I like the attention and I like people looking at me,” Robinson said.
He said it was “nerve-racking” going to New York City for auditions with the end goal “being a role in anything.”
Then, he auditioned for a role in “Million Dollar Quartet.”
“I would walk in with my guitar and get five to 10 minutes to audition,” Robinson said, adding that he tried out for the roles of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and was called back several times for the Elvis role.
Then he received an email informing him he had been selected to play Elvis on stage.
Six weeks later, Robinson was rehearsing for the show and met his co-star, Jason Cohen.
Cohen, who grew up in Marlboro, stars as Jerry Lee Lewis in the production.
To prepare for the role, Cohen researched Lewis’ life and watched videos of the entertainer.
“I got a sense of what he was like as a child and studied him from his birth in 1935 to December 1956. Jerry Lee Lewis was not established (when the four men met at the Sun Studio), not in the big leagues,” Cohen said.
Cohen attended high school in Howell and graduated from New York University, where he completed a multi-disciplinary program at the Playwrights Horizon Theater School, New York City.
“I had the freedom as an undergraduate student to work and train as an actor. It prepared me for ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’ ” Cohen said.
A self-taught piano player, Cohen said his first life-changing moment came when he was 5 years old and saw the animated musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“The first Broadway show I saw was ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and then I saw ‘Sweeney Todd.’ It opened my mind up to the idea of acting, singing and music combined,” he said.
After some “real actor struggles and ebbs and flows,” Cohen set his sights on auditioning for the role of Jerry Lee Lewis in “Million Dollar Quartet.” He performed the singer’s hits “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and after a couple of callbacks, Cohen was offered the role.
“I forgot that I was waiting on the call. I’m still kind of surprised I’m doing a lead in a musical,” Cohen said.
Robinson and Cohen not only share ties to Monmouth County, but they also share a passion for performing “Million Dollar Quartet” nearly every night of the week before audiences of 1,500 to 2,000 people.
“My favorite part of doing the show changes from week to week. Right now it’s ‘Hound Dog.’ Crowds love it and lose it with certain Elvis moves,” Robinson said.
Cohen said the whole show is a “blast.”
“My favorite part is the encore when I perform ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.’ I interact with the audience and jump on stage,” Cohen said.
According to Robinson, about 80 shows have been performed at this point.
“By the time we hit Jersey, we will be over 100 total performances. When the run ends in July, we will have hit about 200 performances,” he said.
“Million Dollar Quartet” will come to the Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 19. For more information, visit www.countbasietheatre.org
“I always wanted to be a rock star and now I am,” Robinson said.