According to legend, the four – all indebted to and variously associated with Sam Phillips and his groundbreaking Sun Records – coincidentally gathered at Sun’s storefront studio in Memphis one December night, resulting in the coolest, most inspired, exciting, explosive, eye-popping (pick an adjective) jam session ever, hence the title.
Million Dollar Quartet places audience in the wings at that precise moment.
The soundtrack to the musical – which is based on a hit Broadway show and plays Toronto’s Centre for the Arts until July 29 – is unbeatable and quickly emerges as the production’s most winning element.
Really, it’s hard to go wrong with chestnuts like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “I Walk the Line,” “Hound Dog” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” to name just a few, played with urgency and verve.
There is also the compelling and competing storylines, all rooted in reality: Cash’s imminent split from Sun to join Columbia and Phillips’ sense of abandonment; Perkins’ resentment of Presley’s success; Lewis’ manic persona threatening to overwhelm everything in its path; Phillips’ blind (and blinding) enthusiasm.
Of course, with personalities this big, the casting is crucial, and it is here that Million Dollar Quartet soars and stumbles. Actor Martin Kaye doesn’t so much play Jerry Lee Lewis as embody him right down to his itchy mannerisms and rainbow of quirks. Ditto Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash, whose molasses-slow gestures (not to mention his voice) are recreated with absolute precision.
Lee Ferris’ Carl Perkins and Christopher Ryan Grants’ Sam Phillips are tougher to call since neither man comes with a familiar list of attributes but both are hugely watchable. Alas, Eddie Clendening’s Elvis Presley just doesn’t work - and it wasn’t just me who thought so; the buzz at the after-party was the same.
On a planet crawling with Elvis impersonators, it seems criminal to cast someone who simply doesn’t convince, vocally or physically. And since Elvis is obviously central to the plot, this mars the production substantially.
It’s possible director Eric Schaeffer’s intention was to draw attention away from Presley in order it fan it out more equitably across the other characters but the rest of cast is strong enough to hold their own.
Really though, these are just so many details in the bigger picture. Million Dollar Quartet brings the music - loud, clear and full of life. In the context of musical, that’s hard to beat.
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