Million Dollar Quartet comes to life

Million Dollar Quartet Citadel GigCity EdmontonJukebox Musicals have been all the rage on Broadway. Examples include Buddy (Holly), Jersey Boys (about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) and the godmother of them all, Mamma Mia (ABBA).

Included in that list is the current attraction at the Citadel Theatre, Million Dollar Quartet.

This production is simply superb. It was assembled by two old pros at the clip and paste music business, Americans Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, and is based (loosely) on a real event. On December 4, 1956, four great rockabilly artists met in Sam Phillips’ primitive Sun Recording Studios in Memphis. Two of the four were Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, who were there laying down a recording under Phillips’ direction. As the afternoon progressed, Johnny Cash dropped in. So did Elvis, who by that time was becoming one of the top acts in the world. On that fabled afternoon, they did what most musicians do when they get together – they jammed. Phillips slapped a tape on his machine.

It was not a great recording, but it certainly gives a feeling of old friends gettin’ down together to play their own music.

Mutrux and Escott, being the practiced pros they are, gussy up the proceedings and present a barn-burner of a show. The arrangements smoke – all tucked into by a talented cast who make a valiant (and largely successful) stab at crawling into the persona and delivery of the originals. They both act and accompany themselves. The show makes a bow to the unspoken stresses that filled that tiny studio that afternoon – mostly voiced by Phillips (the ever genial Ryan Parker) in his narration. Cash was there to tell Phillips that he had just signed with the behemoth Columbia Records and was leaving Sun. Perkins was mad at Elvis for purloining his niche hit, Blue Suede Shoes, and spinning it into a hit parade blockbuster. And Perkins was desperately looking for another big-seller. Elvis felt guilty for leaving his mentor and was still suffering from a recent debacle in Vegas. Phillips himself was considering an offer from RCA. In fact, though none of them knew it, it signaled the beginning of the end for Sun Records.

Million Dollar Quartet Citadel GigCity EdmontonThe two writers, conspiring with ace director Ted Dykstra, keep the spoken (and unspoken) subtext bubbling away – but if you’re looking for drama here you’re in the wrong theatre. The backstory is woven throughout the (intermissionless) hour and 40 minutes but the show is best when it gets down and dirty to present a rocking, joyous, often sweet and soulful celebration of the times when rock was young and giants walked the earth.  The hits just keep on coming – Blue Suede Shoes, Great Balls of Fire, Hound Dog, I Walk The Line, That’s Alright (Mama). For purists – country like 16 Tons and Ghost Riders in the Sky; and hymns like Peace in the Valley and Down by the Riverside that only a quartet of good ol’ boys raised by God-fearin’ folks could serve up.

St. Albert born Dykstra keeps the heady brew at a boil, knows when to take it down to the simple basics and when to bring it home in the foot stompers (as he did when he starred as Jerry Lee Lewis on the Citadel stage in the musical play Fire in 1986). Christo Graham ably channels the cheeky Lewis (if not quite reaching “The Killer’s” feral vocal dexterity) and certainly attacks the piano with demented skill. Carl Perkins was a wizard guitar picker (the Beatles give him full credit for being an influence) and Kale Penny seems his match. Christopher Fordinal plays Elvis, combining the youthful innocence, carnal life force and a hint of something dangerous in much the same way as the star did at that age. The best is Greg Gale as Johnny Cash. He’s got the slicked back hair, the courtly manner of a Southern country gentlemen and the slow, sly crooked smile that would spread across the entertainer’s face. And he’s got the pipes – especially in his soulful low register where his first song Folsom Prison Blues brought a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience.

They are joined by Vanessa Sears who plays Dyanne, Elvis’ girlfriend, who sings a couple  of songs (including a sulphurous Fever) in a great big Southern Gospel voice. Providing solid back-up are Nelson Collins-Lee on drums and Paul Cournoyer on bass.

At the end, the group dons the glittery sequenced costumes of their early days and rock out into an all-too-short slice of the concert the Million Dollar Quartet never gave.

The rafters ring these nights at the Citadel.

Million Dollar Quartet plays on the Shoctor Stage through November 13.