By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Every once in a blue moon history serves up one of those those born-to-be-mythology moments where the greats happen to converge behind the scenes (and give the entertainment industry something juicy to speculate about).
One of the great what-if? scenarios transpired in a barebones Memphis recording studio one December afternoon in 1956. What if you were Sam Phillips, the visionary of Sun Records, having a recording session, and what if four legendary rockabilly stars, at various stages of career trajectory, showed up to discuss their contracts with the man, smoke, tipple, shoot the breeze? And then, impromptu, what if the young Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis jammed on each other’s hits and assorted other chart busters?
That’s the premise, the real-life infrastructure, upon which Million Dollar Quartet, the rockin’ 2006 jukebox musical currently igniting the Mayfield stage, is loosely based.
In jukebox world there have been thinner racks to hang songs on, and more preposterously elaborate ones, too (we’re looking at you, Mamma Mia! and Flashdance). Anyhow the song list, which starts with Blue Suede Shoes, rolls out hit after hit, Folsom Prison Blues, That’s All Right, Great Balls of Fire, Hound Dog, Who Do You Love.… And director Van Wilmott has assembled a top-drawer cast of performers with startling musical chops to deliver them — no mean assignment since the actors have to actually play the characters AND the iconic music that everyone knows. And they do.
Not only that, Million Dollar Quartet catches the characters as their younger selves and not in concert performance mode — behind the scenes of their public personas, in the place that all four made their start. Elvis (Matt Cage) has already left Sun Records for RCA and Hollyweird (as Perkins puts it), super-stardom in progress, “the curse of the answered prayer” as someone says.
Cage’s performance seems mid- rather than early-period Presley, with all the signature moves codified in place, even on an informal occasion. He’s just back, chastened, from a disastrous run in Vegas opening for borscht belt comic Shecky Greene (an amusing thought). “I will NEVER play Vegas again!” he declares vehemently, in one of the evening’s prime laugh lines.
Rockabilly king and guitar virtuoso Perkins (Tyler Check), resentful that Elvis has co-opted his Blue Suede Shoes, is looking for profile, and a hit. And, like Johnny Cash (Devon Brayne), he’s leaving Sun Records for Columbia. This is the day they’ll be breaking the news to Mr. Phillips (Leon Willey).
The personality profile of Carl Perkins isn’t as etched in the public consciousness as the other characters in the play, but his stature as a guitar whiz (and songwriter) makes him a daunting assignment: Check is very impressive. And so is Brayne, who captures the rumbling cadences and the signature cool, wry, mannerly qualities of the younger edition of Cash in a smart way.
And there’s a brash newcomer, the inflammable Jerry Lee Lewis, quite possibly batshit crazy in the show-grabbing full-throttle performance from Jefferson McDonald. His demented, untethered attack on the keyboard and the proprieties startles, impresses, amuses, appalls, and aggravates the gathering in roughly equal measure. You can’t take your eyes off him either; he’s the human embodiment of a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on, torn between the irresistible attractions of the devil’s music and the prospect of damnation.
Mr. Phillips (as everyone calls him), swagger-y but vulnerable in Willey’s engaging performance, is himself mulling over an offer from RCA. He’s the narrator, who weaves flashbacks and annotations, bits of history and exposition, sometimes right between lines of a number like That’s All Right.
The ensemble is supported by the more than able duo of bassist Evan Stewart and percussionist Brendan Lyons, as well as Alicia Barman as Elvis’s latest squeeze, an aspirational singer who gets her own numbers (I Hear You Knocking, Fever).
The musical quality of the show, its prime asset, will knock you back in your seat. And in the astute mix of rock, country, and a cappella gospel that is the fabric of Million Dollar Quartet, you get a sense of history being made. That sense is reinforced by Ivan Brozic’s vintage studio design and sepia lighting by Gail Ksionzyk.
And the dynamic of spontaneous jam session by artists who get a kick out of making music, is captured in the easy, informal, bantering/ bickering quality of Wilmott’s production.
“We are gonna nail this sucker,” declares Mr. Phillips darting back into the control room to record as his “boys” attack Matchbox. And, hey, that’s what they’ve done at the Mayfield.
Million Dollar Quartet
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Created by: Colin Escott, Floyd Mutrux
Directed by: Van Wilmott
Starring: Devon Brayne, Matt Cage, Tyler Check, Brendan Lyons, Jefferson McDonald, Evan Stewart, Leon Willey, Alicia Barban
Running: through Oct. 27
Tickets: mayfieldtheatre.ca, 780-483-4051