Thursday 18 May 2017

Million Dollar Quartet rocks a concert of Wow!
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night &
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Jonas Shandel (Johnny Cash), Steven Greenfield (Jerry Lee Lewis), Kale Penny (Carl Perkins)
and Erik Fraser Gow (Elvis Presley) are the lyric crazy showboaters front-&-centre in M$Q.          
David Cooper photo.
From the footlights : M$Q starts here : a jukebox musical about Sun Records. Which was a boutique recording label owned by Sam Phillips in Memphis. Phillips had Carl Perkins as a mainstay recording artist. On December 4, 1956 Phillips had arranged to have Perkins meet another rising young talent from cotton-pickin' country, Jerry Lee Lewis. Oh yeah. And a couple other of Sun Records musicians were expected to wander by just for hellry -- Elvis Presley & Johnny Cash.

And they did. But they didn't spend the afternoon jamming all their greatest hits the way this Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux script does. Reportedly they mostly strummed-&-hummed-&-keyboarded a bunch of folk tunes and church-inspired gospel spirituals. 

But a folk / gospel re-do of that remarkable pre-Xmas '56 afternoon wouldn't put butts in Y2K live theatre seats, Escott and Mutrux knew. So not surprisingly what M$Q brings is a night of spirited rockin' shout-outs of the Hit Parade chart-toppers that everyone who loved that epoch will hoot-&-holler-&-standing-to. 

Mid-50's rockamania is what Million Dollar Quartet is all about.
               David Cooper photo.
How it's all put together : The show kicks off with the company rousing the crowd with Perkin's iconic Blue Suede Shoes that Elvis "stole" from him and made famous in '56 : I was in Grade 6, had a pair of Buster Brown b.s.s.'s my older sisters insisted Mom buy for me -- and Yes! everyone took great delight to step on 'em. 

Next come a host of hits between explanatory monologues spliced in by Phillips (Graham Coffeng) that tie together the Sun Records' mottled story + the history of how he met & nurtured these lads one-on-one, song-by-song. Also some requisite Aw shucks! nitter-natter and wee-jealousy fits between ongoing feast of guitar, piano, bass and drum riffs the Sun Studio group puts out. 

But no question it's the cuts themselves chosen by Mutrux-&-Escott that steal the night : Folsom Prison Blues; Long Tall Sally; Great Balls of Fire; Hound Dog; Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On! -plus- Elvis's ostensible girl friend named Dyanne (Lauren Jackson) doing Peggy Lee's torch song Fever as well as pop singer Gale Storm's cover of I Hear You Knockin' to add some welcome sex appeal.

Steven Greenfield as Jerry Lee Lewis is the antic centrepiece in much of M$Q's music tribute.  
David Cooper photo.
What the show brings to the stage :  It's the selection of songs that explains the who / what / why / where / when & how of these unassuming ultra-gifted fellows fetched up in Dixie's fly-over-America. How they came to show off all the juice-&-joy-&-jam that set the rock-n-roll stage.

From Elvis's hip-swivel style to Lewis's manic gymnastic keyboarding to Cash's raw jailhouse stuff. On to Bo Diddley to Chuck Berry to Little Richard to Roy Orbison to the heartbreaking Feb. 3, 1959 Clear Lake, Iowa plane crash martyr squadron of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper J. P. Richardson and 
all the "Bye, Bye Miss American Pie \ The day the music died" wannabes who've entertained us ever since.  

Suffice to remind readers of the famous Sir Paul McCartney tribute to what Sun Records brought the world : "If there had never been a Carl Perkins there would never have been the Beatles."

Not much purpose in detailing how Phillips had to sell Elvis's Sun Records contract to RCA in New York to stay afloat financially. Or how Johnny's expiring Sun contract & crescendoing hits would catapult him from humble Memphis to Columbia Records in Nashville. How crushed Sam Phillips (Graham Coffeng) was at the news. [The script tends toward tedious on this topic.] Here's a peek at what makes the show sparkle.

Production values that shine through :  At the hands of veterans, Ted Roberts' Sun Studio set with Gerald King's rock concert lighting make every square inch of the Stanley's 75-foot proscenium explode with colour and vibrancy. Add the musical staging by Valerie Easton's invariably deft and creative hand. She moves the lads up down over-&-around the set and one another -- not to mention atop their pet instruments as well. What you get are visual effects that are grabby and sure and constant.

Acting pin-spots :  The challenge for any director in staging the Escott/Mutrux book is to find actors who approximate the characters whose youthful, brash & ambitious souls they are trying to imitate in song. 

Jerry Lee Lewis (Steven Greenfield) was colloquially known as "Killer", famous for jumping all over his piano, sitting and standing on it, kicking the keys with his feet, playing them behind his back. "The motherthumpiest piano player you ever did see!" he chortles. Greenfield must have watched countless YouTube out-takes to master the act as he does. (His malignant, anarchist carrot-top hair was pure hoot to watch doing its thing trying to keep up with his gyroantics.)

As Johnny Cash -- "The Man in Black" -- Jonas Shandel evinces all the baritone/bass nuances from the range of gospel, folk, country & rock influences Cash was so good at delivering. He also convinced us, sort of, about his torn Christian soul troubling itself whether all of this irreverent shin-dig stuff was perhaps the Devil's doing. 

Elvis's uptempo style was often known as "hillbilly bop". And though EP hated the nickname of the day "Elvis the Pelvis", Erik Fraser Gow pulled off many of his moves remarkably well. (His pompadour hairpiece was less a good match.)

For his part Carl Perkins (Kale Penny) was known for his blues vamp touches. Phillips calls him the Father of Rockabilly. Loved his gabardine slacks. Kind of matched his Sun Studio stage persona at times.

From my perspective, meanwhile, Lauren Jackson as Elvis' squeeze Dyanne came close to stealing the limelight from the wildly effervescent Greenfield as Lewis and from Shandel who was "closest to the real thing" in his cut at Cash. Jackson maintained her perky, snappy, chipper personality throughout and had rich pipes to boot. Pure engaging charm in her crisp red dress atop timely petticoats six feet across.

Who gonna like : Greg Lake of the band EL&P once said "The human voice is a matter of the expression of passion in the understanding of the human condition." Synonyms for passion include such feelings as zeal, rage, craving, anger, hunger, yearning, gusto, frenzy, and zest. These are the qualities of early rock-&-roll that struck deep into our hearts and souls back then, do now. Powerful but simple stuff, not cynical in the least.

Got rhythm? Got a jones for genuine rock tunes? Want just plain fun music to cheer you and make you clap loudly and whistle and cheer? No question at all : Best bang for the buck in sheer fun, sport-&- amusement since ACT's Black-&-Gold Revue from 30 years back.

I usually don't gush-gush, but this is a Do! Not! Miss! musical stage event in Vancouver for folks who love this heart-pumping music, folks who now and then hanker for the simpler more innocent times that once were and won't likely come this way again.

N.B. Addendum : Special note must be made of Todd Biffard's turn as the show's sessional drummer. Late small-club jazz impresario Ted McCann used to aver there are two kinds of drummers in bands : those who are wood-choppers and those who finesse the skins instead. "Drummer!" was the first word I wrote on my notepad as the show opened. Without a doubt Mr. Biffard is the best I have ever seen or heard in a Vancouver stage musical. Finesse? Completely exquisitely so. A large part of my Wow! from this musical feast.

Particulars :  Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  At Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.  On until July 9.  Run-time 90 minutes plus intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.  Original concept & direction Floyd Mutrux.  Book by Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux.

Production team :  Bill Millerd, Director.  Zachary Stevenson, Musical Director.  Valerie Easton, Musical Staging.  Ted Roberts, Set Designer.  Barbara Clayden, Costume Designer.  Gerald King, Lighting Designer.  Caryn Feher, Stage Manager.  Ronaye Haynes, Assistant Stage Manager.

Performers :  Mathew J. Baker (Brother Jay, based on Carl's brother Clayton, on bass).  Jonas Shandel (Johnny Cash).  Lauren Jackson (Dyanne E. Girlfriend).  Todd Biffard (W. S. 'Fluke' Holland) on drums.  Steven Greenfield (Jerry Lee Lewis).  Kale Penny (Carl Perkins).  Graham Coffeng (Sam Phillips).  Erik Fraser Gow (Elvis Presley).  


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