Note: This show was reviewed at Huron Country Playhouse. After also running on stage at the Drayton Festival Theatre August 9 to September 2, 2017, it has moved to Toronto. This production will be onstage at the CAA Theatre (formerly Panasonic Theatre), Toronto, Dec. 12, 2017 to Jan. 7, 2018. Please note that Aaron Solomon is playing Johnny Cash and Maxwell Theodore Lebeuf is not in the Toronto production. For more information, go to www.Mirvish.com
December 4, 1956 – See History Being Made
History was made on December 4, 1956 when four great singers just happened to end up in the same room and had a jam session. Now we can relive that historic moment with Million Dollar Quartet now on stage at Huron Country Playhouse.
Sun Records in Memphis, owned by Sam Phillips, was the original home of then-rising star Johnny Cash, unknown Jerry Lee Lewis, veteran musician Carl Perkins, and chart-topper Elvis Presley. It was the first and only time these four jammed together, and so the story of that fateful day lives on, and we can see the events unfold in this musical 61 years later.
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 Shoes”, but it was Elvis who made it a hit and Carl continues to harbour that grudge. 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 pounds 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 theatregoers come to hear. It’s the music, and it doesn’t disappoint.
J. Sean Elliott plays Sam Phillips, who also narrates much of the story. Elliott has the good old Southern boy talk and attitude down pat.
Gerrad Everard steals the stage as Jerry Lee Lewis. You’ll remember Everard as an over-the-top Mick Jagger in Drayton Entertainment’s Legends shows, strutting with elbows out and big pouty lips. As Jerry Lee Lewis, he is also over-the-top, but that’s the way Jerry Lee was! Everard pounds the piano and tosses his head just like Lewis, even playing while lying on the top of the piano. Like Jerry Lee he kicks the piano bench out of the way. With Jerry Lee’s cockiness, Everard provides much of the show’s comedy. “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’” are worth the ticket price alone. Everard has skilfully combined Jerry Lee’s quirkiness and energy: this may be the role he was born to play.
Laura Mae Nason is also outstanding as Dyanne, Elvis’ girlfriend. She is smoldering hot with her sizzling rendition of “Fever” and also has a very strong performance of “I Hear You Knockin’”. It’s interesting to note that Everard and Nason are a couple in real life, so there is great chemistry when they’re flirting over the piano keys.
Carl Perkins is portrayed by Tyler Check, who plays the Gibson Les Paul guitar like a veteran. Perkins, of course, made rockabilly music famous with his blend of country and rock ’n’ roll. Check replicates the rockabilly sound perfectly, complete with twang and warbles. His renditions of “Matchbox” and “Who Do You Love” are excellent.
Matt Cage is perfect as Elvis: he has both the looks of a handsome young Elvis and the sound. His “That’s Alright Mama” and “Hound Dog” have the audience bobbing in time.
Maxwell Theodore Lebeuf has the wide vocal range needed for playing Johnny Cash. He is able to sing the Man in Black’s deep bass notes and gives us “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Sixteen Tons”, and “I Walk the Line”, which are audience favourites. Another crowd-pleaser is “Down by the Riverside”, which all four sing together.
All four men play the instruments that their characters are famous for – there is no band in the orchestra pit. Joining them are Scott Carmichael as Fluke on drums and Zachary Knowles as Carl Perkins’ brother Jay, on bass. Credit goes to Director Alex Mustakas (also Drayton Entertainment’s Artistic Director) for bringing out the best in the multi-talented cast.
It’s interesting to have a musical to mark this historical event. It seems like pop, blues, and country all came together to create rockabilly, 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 rockabilly to Canada back in the 60s and has been singing it here ever since.
Million Dollar Quartet keeps that style alive, and documents an exciting day 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.
Rumour has it that this show has been purchased by the Mirvish organization and will be going to Toronto to the Panasonic Theatre. My advice is to see it now, while it’s still in Grand Bend, or at the Drayton Festival Theatre when it moves there on August 9.
Million Dollar Quartet continues with eight shows a week until August 5 at Huron Country Playhouse, Grand Bend. Tickets are available by calling the Box Office: 519-238-6000 or Toll Free 1-855-372-9866, or check www.huroncountryplayhouse.com
Photo: Left: Gerrad Everard, Tyler Check, Matt Cage and Maxwell Theodore Lebeuf in Million Dollar Quartet. Photo by John Watson. Right: The original 1956 photo.
Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Inspired by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins
Directed by Alex Mustakas
Musical Direction by Konrad Pluta
Performed by Matt Cage, Scott Carmichael, Tyler Check, J. Sean Elliott, Gerrad Everard, Zachary Knowles, Maxwell Theodore Lebeuf, & Laura Mae Nason.
Produced by Drayton Entertainment
Huron Country Playhouse, Grand Bend
July 19 to August 5, 2017
Reviewed by Mary Alderson