JULY 2023 | Volume 229


Production image

Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Arts Club Theatre Company
Granville Island Stage
June 22-Aug. 6
From $39 or 604-687-1644

In Memphis, Tennessee, Christmas lights adorn the exterior of the iconic Sun Records studios. Inside, dim lighting casts a colorful glow upon legendary record producer Sam Phillips, who waits eagerly to share the story of what happened on December 4, 1956.Million Dollar Quartet transports the audience to the day that birthed the famous impromptu jam session featuring rock and roll legends Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.

The show opens with an energetic rendition of "Blue Suede Shoes," offering a taste of the impressive musical chops and convincing characterizations to come. Then, guided by the suit-clad and cowlicked Phillips (a keen Jay Clift), we jump back in time to the beginning of the fateful day. A self-assured 21-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis comes in to audition for Phillips. Impressing with his extraordinary piano skills, he joins Carl Perkins' recording session. Johnny Cash and Elvis, accompanied by Elvis' new girlfriend Dyanne, drop by the studio with their own agendas.The purpose of their visitsis quickly overshadowed by themusical numbers that ensue.

The jukebox musical, which first premiered on Broadway in 2010, captures the essence of a specific historical moment. Set during a transformative time for society and the individual players, the story unfolds during rock 'n' roll's controversial rise to mainstream. Tracing back their roots at Sun Records, the musical presents the stars at pivotal moments in their careers.

As the stage periodically darkens, each musician takes the spotlight while time jumps back. Phillips, in his Southern drawl, narrates their meetings, highlighting his pivotal role in shaping their unique sound. Perkins’ exceptional guitar skills always shone, but Phillips urged him to emphasize the bluesy rhythms he picked up from Black neighbours and fellow sharecroppers growing up in Tennessee. The show’s flashbacks, seen through Phillips’ perspective, provide privileged access to each musician’s beginnings. They also incorporate brief but poignant acknowledgements of the influence of Black singers and songwriters, credited in more than half the musical's songs.

Still, the extensive song selection limits the exploration of complex themes.There is a moment, however, when story, music, and cultural significance beautifully intertwine under Bobby Garcia’s thoughtful direction. After sharing childhood stories filled with poverty and hardship, the foursome (along with Dyanne) huddle together to deliver a touching rendition of the melancholic "Peace in the Valley."

The cast pays tribute to the musicians with confident live instrumentation and enjoyable renditions of classic hits like "Great Balls of Fire," "Matchbox," and "Folsom Prison Blues."

Stephen Thakkar's Elvis embodies the singer's demure nature until the music takes over. During "Hound Dog,"he becomes possessed by the singer's renowned thrusts, gyrations, and flirty interactions. Mateo Chavez Lewis’ Jerry Lee elicits the most laughter from the audience, exuding a wildly energetic presence that occasionally irritates the other musicians. With a talent to match his pomposity, Chavez Lewis captures the musician's Amadeus-like eccentricity and manic piano-playing style. Felix Leblanc’s Perkins has a more subdued demeanor but stands out with lively facial expressions. Leblanc skillfully portrays Perkins’ charming cockiness, complete with winks, eyebrow wiggles, and effortless guitar tricks. Tanner Zerreffectively contrasts the coltish stars with his grounded portrayal of the imposing "man in black." During a standout performance of "I Walk the Line," Zerr captures Cash's distinctive low growl, eliciting more than a few cheers from the audience.

Nicol Spinola's choreography strikes a good balance, capturing the recording studio’s impromptu informality while paying crowd-pleasing homage to each musician's stagecraft.

John Bews, playing standing bass as Carl Perkins’ brother Jay, and Nick Fontaine on drums as W.S. "Fluke" Holland, contribute vital backing instrumentation. Their seasoned skills and seamless transitions between songs sell the overall musical experience.Special mention must be made of Emma Pedersen in the role of the talented but unknown Dyanne. She captivates with seductive and vocally impressive renditions of "Fever" and "I Hear You Knockin'."

Joel Grinke’svideo design brings added visual interest to Patrick Rizzotti’s clever set. With the help of a camera rig, a live video feed zeroes in on all the finger picking, string strumming, and key pounding, projecting black and white images on the paneled walls of the recording studio.

Part of the appeal of Million Dollar Quartet lies in the audience's awareness of the incredible success awaiting its four central figures. It's exciting to see the musical pioneers at the beginning of their journeys, before their places in history were solidified. Equally enjoyable is this production’s collective raw energy, making the dramatized jam session believable as a spontaneous, fun-filled moment in history whenthe peerless American artists came together to enjoy themselves and impress one another.

Reviewed by Angie Rico




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