Million Dollar Quartet brings musical legends together, now playing on the Toronto stage
Drayton Entertainment’s production of Million Dollar Quartet at the newly-renamed CAA Theatre is a fictionalized jukebox musical about a real once-in-a-lifetime jam session. On December 4, 1956, four men gathered in a room in a meeting that would never be replicated. The recording studio at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records was largely responsible for the birth of rock and roll, and the independent shop still had the sound bigger record companies wanted to emulate (or steal) at all costs. Past, present, and future Sun Records stars Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis would play there together for the first and last time.
More of a concert with a whisper-thin plot than even a jukebox musical, Million Dollar Quartet knows and embraces what it is: an easy and assured crowd-pleaser squarely aimed at the demographic that can at least vaguely remember 1956 (or the decade thereafter). If you like the music, you will have a good time. If you don’t, why are you there in the first place?
The story is simple and compact: Carl Perkins, original writer of Blue Suede Shoes (before Elvis’ cover overtook his), is looking for another hit. Phillips (J. Sean Elliot, skillfully holding volatile elements together) brings in new kid Jerry Lee Lewis, all gangly energy and hubris, to spice up his session. Phillips sold Elvis to save his studio, but the new star misses having a manager who was actually in his corner. Johnny Cash is up for contract renewal with Sun Records, but the Man in Black seems distinctly funereal. And everyone’s saying rock and roll’s going to die any day.
The show praises the independent spirit of its music, linking it to Phillips’ refusal to be bought, and takes a short look at the difficulties of fame and the racial politics surrounding the appropriation of rock and roll. Everyone here is still young and early in their careers, though, and while there’s a hint of foreshadowing at the tragedies ahead, what ultimately matters is the joy of the music.
It’s joyful, indeed. Drayton has assembled an excellent set of performers who do the characters justice. They exude energy, and provide each song with impressive musical showboating and strong voices. Though I’m no Elvis expert, Matt Cage, already a professional impersonator, seemed to me to have the look, personality, and gyrations down pat, with the added charm of portraying a young Presley who’s still rather unsure of himself. Aaron Solomon has the requisite gravel and intonation of Cash’s voice.
In the wake of Roy Moore, it’s a bit difficult to laugh at jokes about Jerry Lee Lewis’ multiple marriages to various relatives, which bring to mind his future marriage to a 13-year-old cousin. Mostly, though, the show chooses to play up Lewis’ backwoods background, irritating braggadocio and odd musical magnetism in equal measure. You may want to kill him at points, but Gerrad Everard certainly steals scenes. While I’m less familiar with Carl Perkins, Tyler Check gives him the twitchy irritation of a person whose original hit song is being mistaken as a cover of its now more famous version.
The group is rounded out by Laura Mae Nason’s Dyanne (a fictionalized singer version of Elvis’ actual dancer girlfriend at the time, Marilyn Evans, who was at the session), who does justice to “Fever.”
In a dizzying array, the show manages to pack in more than 20 songs in 100 minutes. A cover of Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” a mash-up of Cash’s “Sixteen Tons” and Perkins’ “My Babe,” and a well-harmonized rendition of “Peace in the Valley” were standouts, but every number was handled with aplomb.
While some of the dialogue and song intros can be a little clunky, that’s not really what we’re here for. The boys can play, and by the time they asked the audience to stand up and dance, they didn’t seem to have any trouble finding willing feet.
- Million Dollar Quartet plays until Sunday, January 7th at the CAA Theatre (651 Yonge St.)
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8PM, with a Wednesday matinee at 1:30PM and Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2PM
- Tickets are $69-89, and can be purchased in-person at the box office, by calling 416-872-1212, or online.
- Warning: stage haze is used in this production.
Photo of Tyler Check, Gerrad Everard and Matt Cage provided by Drayton Entertainment