True Rock n’ Roll Feeling Present at ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ Opening Night

Photo by Gesilayefa Azorbo

You know those hypothetical questions that go, if you could spend an evening with five famous people in history, who would you choose? It’s usually some combination of celebrities, musicians and religious figures, and of course, hardly anyone ever gets to meet them (usually because they’re long gone to the dinner party in the sky).

However, on Thursday night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, it felt eerily like an answer to that question as the Man in Black, the King of Rock and Roll, the Father of Rockabilly and the writer of the famous (infamous?) “Great Balls of Fire” appeared in the flesh, on-stage, for a once in a lifetime jam session known as the Million Dollar Quartet.

Of course, I’m talking about Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis…and unfortunately they weren’t really in the flesh (otherwise Dancap Productions would have to patent that time machine technology…) Instead it was the opening night of the stage production of Million Dollar Quartet, which opened Thursday, July 12 for a three-week run. But the spirits of the music greats were well and truly present as the actors on stage channelled the founding fathers of rock and roll during a pivotal time in each of their careers.

It’s 1956, and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (Christopher Ryan Grant) has introduced the world to both Johnny Cash(Derek Keeling) and Elvis Presley (Eddie Clendening), and  he is about to unleash the piano-chair kicking, keyboard-pounding Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye) on an unsuspecting public. The hit “Folsom Prison Blues” has begun to make Cash a household name, and Elvis Presley’s performance of “Blue Suede Shoes” on the Ed Sullivan show has rocketed him to stardom…to the frustration of the song’s original writer, Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris).

Perkins, who is also on Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label, is working hard to make another hit, because his success with “Blue Suede Shoes” has been usurped by Elvis to the point that he is being accused of “covering Elvis”. At a jam session with Perkins and his band, Sam Phillips informs him that he’s invited Johnny Cash over to the studio to get him to sign a contract extension, now that the bigger labels are circling like musical sharks hungry for blood(y good music). Elvis is also in town, and he hasn’t been to the studio since he went to RCA – Sam Phillips sold his contract to them in a moment of financial desperation the year before – and so he comes by the studio as well, with his then-girlfriend Dyanne. What results is an impromptu jam session between four of the most iconic musicians of the time and what is often hailed as one of the greatest rock n’ roll jam sessions of all time.

Derek Keeling as Johnny Cash [photo by Gesilayefa Azorbo]

Cadence had a chance to speak with some of the cast members before the show, and Derek Keeling, who has played “Danny” in Grease on Broadway and “Fonzie” in Happy Days, says it’s an interesting challenge to bring Johnny Cash to the stage.

“I’ve been an actor for the last ten years, and it’s really interesting to play someone that actually existed,” Keeling says.

“Most people I play are just fictional characters, so you kind of have a lot more leeway to do whatever you want with it. With this it’s very specific, so thankfully for me there’s been a lot of videos on YouTube, and lots of recordings, and you know he had the Johnny Cash show back in the 70s, so a lot of source material to bring from, but in that same respect, because of that people expect a certain thing and you have to bring that, you can’t make it your own too much, you kind of have to pay tribute to what he was and what he did.”

In terms of the ways that the show reflects the historic event it was based on, MDQ national tour publicist Robin Steinthal says that it was more an encompassing view of the time period around the day, rather than a faithful recreation.

“What was sung on that night was just the guys jamming, they never sang a complete song, they just kind of sang what they knew and what they’d grown up on, so “Down By the Riverside” which we sing in the show they actually sang that night, and “Brown-eyed Handsome Man” which we sing in the show they also sang that night,” she says.

“Everything else is pretty much the hits of the guys from that time period, and a little bit before and after…it kind of jams about 18 months of what happened in Sun Records’ history into that night. So there’s creative license too, and explaining backstory and telling you how these people got to where they are, and where they kind of go in the future. So it’s based on what happened that night but we add a lot to it.”

Lee Ferris, who plays Carl Perkins, enjoys the fact that he gets to portray a man who history kind of forgot, despite his immense contributions to the birth of rock and roll.

“He’s not as well known as the other three,” he says.  “The legacy of the other guys precedes them so much that they could just walk onstage and get applause, and I sort of have to play a guy who also is written as a bitter, frustrated musician as he was because of “Blue Suede Shoes”; because of the charisma, the sex appeal of Elvis, everyone forgot. But truly he’s the musician’s musician of the group, he’s the writer, the composer, kind of the nuts and bolts of the band in the show, and that’s a lot of fun.”

He continues, saying,

“I get kind of a fun, challenging experience of playing more of an educational role and more of a role of saying, Hey, let’s create some awareness around this person who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes”, who wrote many songs for a lot of other artists, that very famously Paul McCartney said that without Carl Perkins there would be no Beatles, because they really were heavily influenced on what rockabilly was – they called it rockabilly before rock and roll.”

When the audience enters the theatre, the legend of what happened that Tuesday night in 1956 is emblazoned on the curtain at the front of the stage:

“On December 4, 1956, one man brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley together to play for the first and only time. His name was Sam Phillips…the place was Sun Records…that night they made rock and roll history.”

For the show itself, the narrative is tied together by Sam Phillips’ narrator, who breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, and who presides over the flashbacks (and occasionally, flash-forwards) that show how everyone got to where they were that fateful December night.

The production utilizes a deceptively simple setup, just the inside of the recording studio, with the sound booth in the background (and a tape recorder whose wheels actually spin) and off to the left the entrance to the building, which serves as an exit for the few outdoor scenes that take place.

The lighting is what makes the distinction between indoors and outdoors, and between present and flashbacks to the past.

The show, while following a narrative arc – Sam Phillips’ attempt to re-sign Cash against the backdrop of Elvis Presley’s success, in addition to Perkins’ growing frustration with his career slump – managed to fit in a whopping number of hits from the four themselves – twenty-two, to be precise, according to publicist Steinthal.

““Blue Suede Shoes” and “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Great Balls of Fire”, “See You Later Alligator”, “Matchbox”. Twenty-two hits from all four of the icons and a couple others of their friends that they just were jamming that night about,” she says.

Unlike many musical shows where an orchestra provides the music, the songs on this one are entirely produced by the cast themselves onstage – but then, they are playing musicians, after all, and in fact each of the actors is an acclaimed musician in their own right. But the aim was to present the music of the famous quartet and if the audience reactions were anything to go by, they brought it, all right. Less than ten minutes into the start of the show, people were dancing in their seats and applauding after each number. The only thing missing was spontaneous dancing in the aisles, but perhaps the seats in the theatre were packed too full to attempt that.

A key moment in the production, though, had to be when Keeling’s Cash picked up his guitar and played the opening chords for “Walk the Line”, followed by his voice singing in Cash’s trademark deep baritone. You could almost picture the Man in Black sitting off in the wings nodding in approval.

At the end of the show, the performance received a standing ovation when they came out to take their bows, but in a delightful bait-and-switch, the show wasn’t quite over. Instead, the studio prop behind them was raised up to the rafters, revealing a wall of lights, and four stunning, sequined jackets were lowered to the stage. Then all four performers stepped up, put on the glittering jackets, and launched into an exit performance worthy of screaming girls and tossed…personal items.

They performed Presley’s “Hound Dog”, Johnny Cash’s “Riders in the Sky”, Carl Perkins’ “See You Later Alligator” and in a splendid finale where he (naturally) kicked his piano chair, Jerry Lee Lewis’, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”.

Million Dollar Quartet doesn’t cost a million dollars to get in, but it well might be worth it.

The show runs till July 29, 2012 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario. Click here for tickets and show information.