"Rock 'n' roll isn't a fad. It's a revolution."
So proclaims one of the Million Dollar Quartet
-- consisting of Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis -- as they record the eponymously named famous album. They bicker and boast and compete, a bunch of rockers sittin' around bitching -- while existing at the moment that music changed forever. In these days of Auto-Tune and other electronic wizardry, we forget that modern music was created by musicians with only their voices and instruments being captured in the moment on tape. Of course, the cast of Million Dollar Quartet
are replicating that magic on a nightly basis until the end of July.
Million Dollar Quartet
is a serious drama mixed with tabloid tawdriness disguised as a jukebox musical. The drama places four prima-donna rockers in a room and lets the sparks fly. At first the exposition is clunky -- with proprietor Sam Phillips, a very engaging Christopher Ryan Grant, speaking directly to the audience and interrupting the music -- but the story somehow takes hold and draws the audience in to the point where the final coup de theatre actually packs an emotional wallop. The best jokes -- or at least the ones that earn the loudest knowing laughs -- are those that play off the history these men have, the story that most know but is still in their future. It's a clever trick because it makes the audience feel clever and prescient, but it also adds a real poignancy to the proceedings. We catch Elvis -- Eddie Clendening, who has the moves down pat but would not succeed at the Collingwood Festival of Elvises vocally -- at the moment he was neutered into irrelevancy and became a pop culture joke rather than the icon he was born to be; Carl Perkins -- Lee Ferris -- as he begins his descent into obscurity; Johnny Cash -- played with a sexiness the real Cash never achieved by Derek Keeling (the body-hugging black outfit and sonorous low notes made him the emotional and erotic centre of the show) -- as he began his climb to stardom; and Jerry Lee Lewis -- the irrepressible and scene-stealing Martin Kaye -- before he was anything but a small-town hick who could pound the hell out of a piano. Each character has a secret, a goal, and the admittedly thin plots interweave to reach a climax that, despite the audience already knowing how it all ends, is bittersweet but very satisfying.
Unfortunately, the show doesn't end there. The backdrop changes, lights flare on and the audience is exhorted to get on their feet and sing and dance along. The idea was probably to give the audience a big finish so they'd leave the theatre smiling instead of in thought -- and to the production's credit a good majority of the audience was dancing in the aisles, the strength of the music and the performances can't be underestimated -- but it also drove home the point that while rock 'n' roll was in the process of being born it was also being groomed for slow death by the forces of Las Vegas, dinner theatre and jukebox musicals. All the flash in the world can't compare with actual voices in harmony singing like they mean it -- something that should be kept in mind when the inevitable Britney, Beyoncé and Madonna jukebox musicals are -- shudder -- considered.
There is also a token woman tucked uncomfortably into the story; Kelly Lamont is a sultry presence with a stunning voice but is completely overshadowed by Keeling and our knowledge that Elvis (she is his ostensible date) had yet to meet Priscilla or all those pills. Kaye captures the flamboyance and sexual ambiguity that added to Lewis's appeal, but a Liberace joke, again playing to the audience's historical advantage, makes sure the testosterone level stays appropriate.
There is an acknowledgment that pop music as we know it was built on the back of a racist appropriation, but Memphis
covered that quite effectively. And that contributed to the bittersweetness of Million Dollar Quartet
: it is the last production to be brought to us by Dancap, and that contribution to the city's cultural and entertainment scene will be missed. Where their Shrek: The Musical
was a surprisingly delightful gay pride fiesta that should have been seen by more, Million Dollar Quartet
is a solid piece of theatre with great music that will hopefully entice the mainstream and send them out singing. Thanks to Dancap for bringing them to us and providing the options.
Million Dollar Quartet runs till Sun, July 29 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St. dancaptickets.com