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Jane Enkin's Review of Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Million Dollar Quartet

Jane Enkin Jan 8, 2017


January 5-28 2017

Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux

Original Concept and Direction by Floyd Mutrux

Inspired by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins

My favourite parts of any folk festival are the workshops when great musicians play backup on each other’s songs and enjoy jamming on old standards that they all know. The music is terrific, of course, but there’s also the magic of a spontaneous, never-to be repeated moment of creation.

One of the most famous jam sessions in the history of Rock and Roll happened in 1956 at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis. Phillips was the man who recognized and developed the talent of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, and to the delight of future generations, he recorded one fabulous session when they played together.

Director Steven Schipper brings that session to life in the widely-produced play Million Dollar Quartet. He’s created a well-paced, tender, nostalgia-tinged production that brings out the essential sweetness of all the characters – and their fierce drive, ambition, and shockingly intense, energetic talent. There is a script and a narrative line to the play, but it’s really all about the music, and the ways the personalities as well as the skills of the artists shaped it.

This is a reimagining, not a recreation – the actors play interesting characters, rather than providing impersonations, and a lot of time is spent on some great hits from each performer that were not actually recorded that day. The simplicity of these straightforward musical forms leaves lots of room for personal, vivid performance, and the arrangements make the most of all the musicians on stage.

There are many songs from the original recording session, however, (you can read lots about it online) and the script emphasizes the fact that the common repertoire of these young white men was derived from the work of older Black American artists. Their tastes, skills and styles were based on blues, spirituals and early rock and roll, all thrillingly delivered in the show. Several Black artists are named and honoured – I wonder whether this kind of recognition was current among young white musicians at the time?

In his interesting program notes, local music historian John Einarson says, “When Presley began singing an impromptu blues number by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup entitled ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’, Phillips found what he later termed ‘lightning in a bottle’ – a good-looking white boy who could sing African-American music.” The moment is recreated in the show, and the characters acknowledge that listeners who would never buy a record by a Black musician would buy the same music recorded by white artists.

Brilliant casting is required for this play – beyond the “triple threat” combination of acting, singing and great movement skills, the performers in Million Dollar Quartet are solid musicians. They master the instrumental styles of their characters and at least hint at their singing styles, and they really capture the musical freshness of a jam session with their harmonies, back up playing and solo licks.

One of the special treats of this show is that the artists all look and sound so young – much of my awareness of these musicians comes from recordings and videos made later in their careers. The charm and exuberance of the performers, with their varied backgrounds, was on display as they met the happy opening night audience after the show, and I’ve incorporated a little from my conversations with them in the thoughts below.

The actors took different approaches to the demands of playing real people in a play – some read several biographies, some watched lots of videos while others avoided them. All the actors praised Schipper for the ways he put his own stamp on the show, challenging them to focus on the relationships in the play, the dynamic between tension and friendship that runs through the script.

Actor Greg Gale plays Johnny Cash. Gale combines his deep, resonant voice with a self-contained, still and powerful demeanor. In his solo songs, he presented the rock-steady rhythm and distinctive guitar licks of classic Cash recordings, and a gentle, never flashy presence that I found gripping. His deep tones were a great component of the ensemble songs. It must have been hard for the creative team to choose from Cash’s huge repertoire – I loved hearing Gale’s youthful interpretations of I Walk the Line and Sixteen Tons. Gale played the role of Johnny Cash in Edmonton before appearing here at the RMTC, and he’ll be heading to Charlottetown for his third production of the show. In between he’ll act in a challenging play about contemporary Syria in Toronto – his major career is as an actor, not a musician.

Winnipeg musician Kris Ulrich plays his first major acting role here – his talent was spotted in the Rainbow Stage productions of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story and A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. (Ulrich has a good video presence online if you’re curious about his work.) His performance as the brooding, edgy Carl Perkins, simmering with frustration most of the time when he’s not joyfully making music, is strong. It was fun to watch his wide-legged, confident stance. He was terrific performing Carl Perkins’ originals, like Blue Suede Shoes, and covers of old blues tunes, and his fiery electric guitar solos brought a lot to the ensemble numbers.

Matt Cage is an Elvis tribute artist, who gives an affecting portrait of Elvis Presley at a pivotal point in his career. In the play, Elvis has left Sun Records for a bigger recording career and roles in Hollywood movies, but he comes back to Sam Phillips as his mentor and friend. He comes across as vulnerable, equal parts swagger and innocence. Cage plays and sings well, with surprisingly few Elvis mannerisms in his vocals. Physically he’s really got the moves, and it’s fun to watch him swivel and shake.

Elliott Loren plays Jerry Lee Lewis, the new kid at Sun Records, for the second time after doing the show in Regina. On a stage full of young people with dazzling moves, Loren stands out as the most athletic, leaping wildly and never missing a note on the piano while he dances. His flashy playing added to all the arrangements. Loren’s Jerry Lee is an annoying but ultimately endearing young man, constantly blowing his own horn and demanding attention, but earning the admiration of the other musicians. He’s also really cute!

There is one more singing character in the play, Dyanne. In the true story, Elvis Presley brought a girlfriend to the studio, a dancer, and the show’s creators have reimagined her into a fantastic singer as well. Since she’s not quoting the interpretations of the original hit-makers, Winnipeg actor Laura Olafson has the opportunity to go to town in her lush, over-the top versions of Peggy Lee’s Fever and the R&B number I Hear You Knockin’. Although Olafson successfully plays Dyanne as a caring peace-maker, the character mostly seems to be in the script to play the tambourine, add some nice layers of harmony, have a lot of star-struck fun listening and dancing to the famous music, and look stunning.

Ryan Voth on drums and music supervisor Kraig Waye on bass are both strong players and fun to watch on stage, adding to the impression that we’re sitting in on a jam session. As Sam Phillips, Andrew Cecon has a dour manner and a really thick accent. Cecon’s Phillips is a moving character, filled with pride, anxiety, and a sincere love for music and young musicians.

It’s bittersweet to know that in real life, this gathering only happened once. A good thing, then, that this talented ensemble has recreated it, reminding us of all that live music and live theatre have to offer.

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