Memorable Music Makes this Show
December 4, 1956, Sun Record Studios, Memphis: Studio owner Sam Phillips brings together four of his star recording artists: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. By this time, Elvis was famous, Johnny Cash had some hits on the radio, Carl Perkins was struggling to get a second hit, and Jerry Lee Lewis was a strange kid who was talented on the piano and held some promise. Carl Perkins was harbouring a grudge against Elvis, who had a big hit with song Perkins wrote, “Blue Suede Shoes”.
But somehow, Sam Phillips had all four men in the same room and according to all accounts, they jammed together.
This musical, Million Dollar Quartet, currently on stage at Toronto’s Centre for the Arts, is based on that big moment in rock ‘n’ roll history. The story is narrated by Sam Phillips and we are given his perspective on this event. Phillips explains that he has sold Elvis’s recording contracts to RCA, and defends that decision. He used the money to pay off debts so that Sun Records could continue to exist, and he also bought shares in a fledgling company – a little hotel business called Holiday Inn.
The plot tries to build on the story surrounding contracts – Elvis is now with RCA but would rather be back with his friend Sam who gave him personal encouragement. Carl’s unhappy because he wrote and recorded Blue Suede Shows, but it was Elvis who made it a hit. Johnny is dissatisfied because he hasn’t had a recent hit, and he decides not to extend his contract with Sam, preferring to switch to Columbia. But he doesn’t have the nerve to tell Sam. And Jerry Lee is just a very cocky, annoying kid – but one who has visible star quality and can pound the keyboard like a madman.
This dissent taking place in one evening makes for a rather limited plot, but it isn’t really the story that theatre-goers come to hear. It’s the music, and for the most part, the music doesn’t disappoint.
Christopher Ryan Grant as Sam Phillips narrates the story. He is good as the storyteller and even joins in the final jam sessions playing the harmonica. Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis nearly steals the stage with his portrayal of Lewis’ cockiness and quirkiness. He delivers the laughs in the show, and also has the greatest stage presence, even giving us a scene where Lewis is mimicking his cousin evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Grant’s fingers fly over the 88s and his voice is a very reasonable facsimile of the great Lewis. He sits atop the piano, hands behind his back and still continues to play, and he also kicks the piano bench out of his way, something that caused trouble for Jerry Lee.
Derek Keeling sings Johnny Cash better than the Man in Black himself. Keeling has an amazing vocal range and can do all the Cash favourites with his smooth singing including Folsom Prison Blues, Sixteen Tons and I Walk the Line.
Lee Ferris has amazing guitar skills and the voice to match, in the role of Carl Perkins. Ferris is very convincing as he frequently pulls out his flask for a drink, and shows his dissatisfaction with the way his songs are being made famous by others. Ferris presents Perkins’ hit Matchbox perfectly and concludes the show with “See you Later Alligator”, an audience favourite.
Of the quartet, the only disappointment is Eddie Clendening as Elvis. I think we are spoiled with an abundance of Elvis impersonators, so that when Clendening doesn’t deliver it is very upsetting. Clendening’s speaking voice is hard to understand, and his singing certainly lacked Elvis’ style.
The actors/singers in the roles of the quartet also deserve credit for polished skills in playing instruments. They are doing all the work; none of the music is pre-recorded.
In addition to the quartet, we meet Carl Perkins’ brother, Jay Perkins (Chuck Zayas) who plays base for the recording session and Fluke (Billy Shaffer) who is the drummer.
Singing in the musical is Kelly Lamont as Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne. (In fact, after the musical came out, it was discovered that Elvis’s date that fateful day was Marilyn Evans, and the real date did not sing.) Lamont gives a sizzling version of Fever.
It’s interesting to have a musical to mark this historical event. It seems like pop, blues and country all came together to create rock-a-billy, which gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll. Many of the songs played in this musical are familiar to me from going to Ronnie Hawkins concerts. Hawkins brought rock-a-billy to Canada back in the 60s and has been singing it ever since.
Million Dollar Quartet keeps that style alive, and documents an exciting night in the development of the music of our generation. It’s well worth seeing for both the historical value of the story, and the great music.
Million Dollar Quartet continues at the Toronto Centre for Arts until July 29, 2012. Call 1-866-950-SHOW (7469) or go to www.dancaptickets.com for tickets.
Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Inspired by the music of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Musical arrangements and supervision by Chuck Mead
Performed by Eddie Clendening, Lee Ferris, Martin Kaye, Derek Keeling, Kelly Lamont, Bill Shaffer, Chuck Zayas and Christopher Ryan Grant.
Toronto Centre for the Arts
July 10 to 29, 2012
Reviewed by Mary Alderson