Theatre Review: Million Dollar Quartet
By Allan Gould
Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins and Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash (Image: Jeremy Daniel)
There was a sense of sadness in the air at the opening night of Million Dollar Quartet. The pleasant, occasionally thrilling musical is a re-enactment of a magical moment in modern cultural history when, on Dec. 4, 1956, four of the early giants of rock ‘n’ roll — Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins — met and jammed together in the Memphis studio of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records.
Why sad? Because it marked the last opening of a Dancap Production. Founder Aubrey Dan — who spent years challenging (and occasionally bettering) Mirvish Productions — announced recently he is throwing in the towel. God willing, he’ll try again in a few years.
So with Beauty and the Beast still playing until July 22, Quartet until July 29 and a road show of the marvelous, witty and home-grown Jersey Boys musical on tour for the next little while, Dan’s very bright lights are about to vanish from our midst.
Now, how to approach this charming, occasionally disarming (if uneven) production? Million Dollar Quartet is undeniably tame as a work of theatre, although that is probably not what 90 per cent of those who have flocked to its productions since it opened in the U.S. would say.
Sam Phillips, a middle-aged impresario, has just sold his most promising performer, Elvis Presley, to RCA for $40,000 (which he has wisely invested in a promising start-up, Holiday Inn), and is at risk of losing the other musicians from his possibly-dying studio to larger record companies.
Obviously, this show depends profoundly on the skills, impersonations and, yes, the looks of the actors: Lee Ferris (Perkins), Derek Keeling (Cash), Eddie Clendening (Presley) and Martin Kaye (Lewis). All of them do decent jobs, but none is better than Keeling’s Cash, which captures that wonderful, deep baritone and religious sensibility. Clendening’s Presley lacks excitement and passion, and Kaye’s Lewis is missing the rage, anger and lunatic energy, not to mention his considerable height.
The musicians sing their future hits almost non-stop, assisting one another with electric guitars and a piano. And a good time is had by the performers — all decent actors and very fine musicians, thank heavens — and by most of the audience.
I hit my teens in the late ’50s — when Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis were flooding my large, battery-operated radio — so seeing (and enjoying) Million Dollar Quartet was a real nostalgia trip for me. How could I not rock (and roll) back and forth in my chair, reliving such seminal times of my adolescence?
Great theatre this isn’t, and lines such as Phillips’ “Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t a fad! It’s a damn revolution!” ring true, but are hardly memorable. Still, lovers of the early years of that revolution in popular music may well find Quartet a very, very enjoyable night on the town.
And Aubrey Dan — I shall miss you, as will all Toronto theatre-goers. Godspeed.
Million Dollar Quartet, Toronto Centre for the Arts. Runs until July 29.
Allan Gould is Post City Magazines’ theatre critic. He has a Ph.D. in English and theatre from York University and has written over 40 books. His writing has appeared in Toronto Life, Chatelaine, en Route, Canadian Business, Good Times and the Financial Post. He is married, with two children. Aside from his family, his major passions are theatre and film, because they enrich life with pleasure and meaning.