In another of what feels like an endless parade of jukebox musicals looking to tap into the nostalgia of a certain generation, Million Dollar Quartet may play fast and loose with true events, but it does give what audiences want.
On December 4, 1956, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins came together for an impromptu jam session at the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. The headline in a local newspaper the next day declared the gathering as the “Million Dollar Quartet”.
In the real-life session, the quartet largely performed a series of country and gospel tunes. In Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s fictionalized version, it has been transformed to largely focus on their greatest hits.
To help add some narrative between songs like “Blue Suede Shoes”, “I Walk the Line”, “Hound Dog” and “Great Balls of Fire”, Escott and Mutrux have inserted a through-line about Cash and Perkins’ plans to leave Sun Records. Anyone up on their rock-and-roll history though knows the duo wouldn’t leave for another two years. But while timelines are changed to suit story, the most egregious part of this part of the narrative is how any tension created because of the pending departures simply fades away as if it didn’t exist in the first place.
There are also the inevitable artistic clashes, including Perkins’ resentment of Elvis having found success with “Blue Suede Shoes”, and in the arrival of the abrasive new kid on the block, Jerry Lee Lewis.
To soften some of the testosterone in the room, the writers have also inserted a girlfriend to Elvis into the mix. While the historical records show Elvis did bring his girlfriend of the time to the recording studio, names have been changed and here she is given her own moments in the spotlight.
But no tinkering with history or shoehorning of narrative matters in the end because just like the jukebox musicals before it, Million Dollar Quartet is all about the music. In fact, Escott and Mutrux finally come to that conclusion themselves by abandoning any sort of narrative to present the final handful of songs as a concert. A concert which never actually took place.
This is not an easy show to deliver effectively on the music side as it requires reasonable facsimiles to carry it off. Fortunately, in the music department at least, the quartet – Erik Fraser Gow (Elvis), Steven Greenfield (Lewis), Kale Penny (Perkins) and Jonas Shandel (Cash) – all do a fantastic job of at least capturing the essence of these four legends.
Particularly good here is Shandel who manages to not only sound like “The Man in Black”, but also has the best hair of the four. It comes as no surprise to know he previously performed the role and in another jukebox musical, Ring of Fire: Project Johnny Cash. But while Shandel nails his musical impersonation, including some great guitar work, his performance felt a little stiffer than required.
Bringing a boundless energy, incredible skills on the piano, and one of the worst wigs of the night, is Steven Greenfield as Jerry Lee Lewis. An odd little man in real-life, Greenfield captures “The Killer’s” idiosyncrasies with a great deal of fun and showmanship. There is a reason the show ends with the rousing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”.
Erik Fraser Gow has one of the toughest impersonations of the evening as Elvis. While doing a good job approximating voice and the necessary pelvic thrusts to make him believable, Gow’s biggest strength comes in a seemingly joyous performance as “The King of Rock and Roll”. He takes runner-up though in the bad wig department.
Perhaps with less to worry about with inevitable comparisons to some of his counterparts, Kale Penny gives one of the best acting performances of the night, and nails the sound of the “Father of Rockabilly” in both vocals and on guitar. His performance of “Matchbox” is particularly memorable.
As the female interloper, Lauren Jackson brings a suitable sultry performance in “Fever”, but it is hard to get past her main reason for being is to simple provide a softer side to the proceedings.
Graham Coffeng ties it all together effectively as the de facto narrator, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. The back-up musicians Mathew J Baker (bass) and Todd Biffard (drums) are spot-on.
Ted Roberts’ sound studio set is realistic, converting effortlessly for the evening’s concert. Gerald King’s lighting moves us effectively between the reality of the recording studio and Coffeng’s narration, while Barbara Clayden’s costumes are wonderful.
The Arts Club Theatre Company’s artistic managing director Bill Millerd knows his audience, and no doubt Million Dollar Quartet will resonate with a great many of its patrons. Fortunately, as the show’s director he has also brought together enough talent to ensure the rest of us have a good time as well.
Million Dollar Quartet with book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. Directed by Bill Millerd. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) until July 9. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.