It was on December 4, 1956 when four of the world’s greatest music legends were brought together for an impromptu recording session for the ages.
That makes it over six decades since the “Father of Rock ‘n Roll”, Sam Phillips, united a youthful Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley for some epic jamming. Now, history almost veritably seems to repeat itself as the magic of that seminal moment is recaptured live on stage here in Montreal at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts – and later in May at Place des Arts.
Written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, Million Dollar Quartet dramatizes the details of the true-story, one-day event through Phillips (played by James Loye), fireball founder and owner of Sun Studios who gave the constituents of the eponymous Quartet their career beginnings. Here, he narrates his journey to success, all whilst introducing his protégés-turned-superstars as they gather at his humble Memphis recording studio.
At this snapshot in time, Presley’s (George Krissa) contract has been sold to RCA to keep Sun alive. Cash (Sky Seals) has broken through to the big leagues, but his contract with the impresario is on the verge of expiration. Meanwhile, Perkins (Edward Murphy) is struggling to follow up with another smash hit after the phenomenon of “Blue Suede Shoes”, so Phillips’ latest discovery – a fresh-faced Lewis (Christo Graham) – is brought in to revamp Perkins’ new material. In between their mixed interactions of competition and camaraderie is a nostalgic trip down memory lane that revisits rip-roaring song after song.
Segal Artistic and Executive Director Lisa Rubin returns to the director’s chair after the triumph of the sold-out Bad Jews last spring (such has been its commercial and critical success that a revival of the original production will be presented as part of the company’s 2017-18 season). In a Phillips-like feat, she’s banded together an extraordinary ensemble of actor-musicians (the cast play their own instruments live), who are herein led by Musical Director David Terriault.
Christo Graham stands out as the kooky, keyboard-thrashing Jerry Lee Lewis. Jaw-dropping piano stunts aside, he brings a priceless goofball charm to the role, infusing the spectacle with comedic beats where perhaps there were none to begin with. At “Real Wild Child” you’re already held captive in (and by) the palms of dextrous hands.
As the evening’s emcee, James Loye distinctively holds his own. New York-based artist Sky Seals is no stranger to Million Dollar Quartet, coming in fresh from other productions across the United States. His grounded and gentle personification of beloved baritone-bass Johnny Cash is a clear crowd favourite.
Making his first professional stage appearance and her Montreal theatre debut are singer-songwriters Edward Murphy as Carl Perkins and Sara Diamond as Elvis’ fictionalized girlfriend Dyanne, respectively. He convinces as the accomplished yet embittered bass player and she enchants as the show’s sultry token woman.
George Krissa has the toughest shoes to fill as the all-too-recognizeable Presley. While he captures the King’s famously reticent demeanour and delivers on the hip-swivelling when in the limelight, the portrayal perhaps longs for more of the icon’s trademark charisma. Rounding out the star-studded troupe are bassist Evan Stewart as Perkins’ brother Jay and Peter Colantonio as Fluke on the drums.
It pains me to pigeonhole Million Dollar Quartet into the dreaded “jukebox musical” category, but with its songbook as its centrepiece – and a plot no thicker than an LP – there is perhaps no more accurate classification. With a song list of 20+ and sparse dialogue that mostly consists of banter, the fast and furious spectacle is more akin to a rock concert (the Segal even offers earplugs at the door) than a piece of dramatic theatre as we know it.
My highbrow jukebox prejudices, however, are ravished by Quartet’s unpretentious simplicity. I am furthermore appreciative of the conception that this is no Vegas impersonation act – although the four leads do look and sound vaguely enough like the icons so as not to be distracting. What ultimately seals the deal, though, in this musical affair is the cast’s electrifying energy in an uncomplicated story of troubled souls coming together to do what they loved most.
Dare I say it, but – gulp – I may have just been converted to the genre for good.
With masterful interpretations of chart-topping oldies including “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Great Balls of Fire” as well as country tunes and harmonized spirituals like “Peace in the Valley” and “Down by the Riverside”, the Segal’s winsome production of Million Dollar Quartet is an explosive entertainment extravaganza that transcends generations. Resurrecting the rockabilly classics of an ongoing century, it educates and enlightens the young and indulges the young at spirit.
Utterly uplifting and consummately infectious, it ranks as a rare must-see of the season. Catch it at the Segal until May 14th or check it out in its special engagement at Place des Arts from May 17th to 21st.
Presented from April 23 to May 14, 2017 at the Segal Centre for Performing ArtsTickets ($32 – 65): www.segalcentre.org | 514-739-7944Presented from May 17th to May 21st, 2017 at Place des Arts’ Cinquième Salle
Tickets ($55 – 65): www.placedesarts.com | 514-842-2112