Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins made history when they gathered at Sun Studios on December 4, 1956. The musical based on that evening offers a powerful reminder of the magic that emanated from a small Memphis studio.
The central conflict of Million Dollar Quartet (currently presented by Dancap Productions at the Toronto Centre For The Arts through July 29th) involves Sun’s main stars moving away from the tiny label and onto bigger musical pastures. Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant), serving as story narrator, has fostered the talents of these big names, all of whom are abandoning him to find bigger success with music labels more able to thoroughly promote and distribute their work Young whipper-snapper Lewis (Martin Kaye) is presented as Phillipps’ next great (white) hope. But instead of offering a complex portrait of complex young men navigating the dangerous waters of fame, family, and art, Million Dollar Quartet offers wan cliches full of predictable dialogue and little dramatic tension. The musical’s book, by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, is full of clunky dialogue and razor-thin storytelling; when Phillipps isn’t spewing historical facts, he’s explaining his dire financial situation, which is all well and fine, but makes for boring drama. Show, don’t tell, seems to be a maxim Escott and Mutrux forgot.
Performances are limited within the constraints of such a poor script, but occasionally rise above the mediocre material. Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling) lacks the Man In Black’s legendary menace, but perfectly captures the Man In Black’s deep sense of decency, coupled with a youthful bashfulness, which makes for occasionally compelling live moments. More fraught with baggage is the role of Elvis Presley, performed here by rockabilly musician Eddie Clendening. A mediocre singer with some passable hip swivel action, the performer lacks the one ingredient central to Presley’s legacy: sex appeal. The not-so-secret ingredient that fed dangerous, feral ferocity of the young King, combined with an aw-shucks gentility and confident charm, are all frustratingly absent in Keeling’s awkward, mumbling portrayal.
Far more magnetic is English musical performer Martin Kaye, who perfectly captures the manic, youthful energy of Jerry Lee Lewis, combining a bumpkin-like looseness and fierce musical chops to match his scorchingly-delivered lines. He’s captivating whenever he’s given (or is stealing) the spotlight. Lee Ferris, as Carl Perkins, provides true dramatic grit and a menacing physicality when he expresses his extreme desperation for another hit (not to mention his frustration at Presley performing “Blue Suede Shoes” on The Ed Sullivan Show). When crossing swords with young buck Lewis, the tension between the experienced hitmaker and the young upstart is given glorious expression through traded musical licks on the guitar and piano, respectively. Ferris and Kaye are two deeply talented musicians with a real feel for the material and the performers’ work; they don’t impersonate so much as inhabit.
Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins and Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash in The National Tour of Million Dollar Quartet
So while Million Dollar Quartet could have pursued a fascinating narrative touching on contemporary corollaries between the music industry of yesteryear and now (and all the threats and challenges therein), instead it pursues a tiresome narrative involving attitude, gratitude, and knowing your roots. If these characters were true to their roots, however, their behaviour (written in a very contemporary style, save for the occasional ‘aw gosh, I’m just a country-boy!’-style line) would be written to reflect that. They’re not, making the drama less than the sum of its parts -but it doesn’t really matter, because no one will go to Million Dollar Quartet to for drama. They’ll go (as they should) for the music, which is very good indeed. There’s plenty in Million Dollar Quartet that will please any classic rock and roll fan. “Who Do You Love?”, “That’s All Right”, and “Great Balls Of Fire” are performed with aplomb and verve - and though some of the tunes presented ignore chronological accuracy (the inclusion of “Folsom Prison Blues” in its celebrated 1968 rendition gives one pause, considering its complicatedhistory), there’s no doubt of their automatic crowd-pleasing appeal.
This appeal reaches its peak at the show’s midpoint, when a four-part harmony of “Down By The Riverside” is performed, lit with a simple spotlight. The power of these voices joined in a religious hymn tells us everything we need to know about life in the south as a young musician in the 1950s. The struggle between God, love, money, and music was never far from the surface with any of these men -it’s hardly surprising the real-life session was apparently full of gospel music -so as the final (authentic) photo of Presley, Lewis, Perkins and Cash is shown projected near the show’s end, one is reminded again of the cultural impact they left, strong, sexy, spiritual reverberations that continue to be felt by audiences and performers alike to this very day.