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‘Million Dollar Quartet’ makes for so-so balls of fire

A scene from "Million Dollar Quartet"

Jeremy Daniel/CP/Dancap

2.5 out of 4 stars

Million Dollar Quartet
Written by
Colin Escott, Floyd Mutrux
Eddie Clendening, Lee Ferris, Martin Kaye, Derek Keeling
Toronto Centre for the Arts

On Dec. 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, then at the height of his rock 'n' roll glory, popped into the little Memphis studio of his former label, Sun Records, to hear Blue Sued e Shoes composer Carl Perkins lay down some new tracks.

Also visiting that evening were country star Johnny Cash and a young hotshot piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis. When the four engaged in some lighthearted jamming, Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, quickly called the local press. The next day, a story appeared that dubbed the foursome a "million-dollar quartet."

That legendary session is the inspiration for Million Dollar Quartet, the slight-but-fun jukebox musical that opened Thursday night as the final Dancap Productions offering at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Although to use the word "inspiration" here may be stretching things. As far as the jukebox genre goes, Mamma Mia! is inspired. Million Dollar Quartet, on the other hand, is dutiful. It serves up the fifties hits of its rockabilly icons, as expected, along with historical factoids in the form of lumpy dialogue.

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At the same time, it takes considerable dramatic licence. Co-authors Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have inflated that fortuitous jam into nothing less than a crossroads in the careers of all four musicians and their producer/mentor, Phillips. The writers have also altered the actual playlist of the session, which consisted mostly of country and gospel tunes. Now, while the quartet does harmonize on the traditional Down by the Riverside, they also take turns firing off their future classics. Elvis (Eddie Clendening) revisits his seminal first single, That's All Right. Cash (Derek Keeling) obliges with a request to sing I Walk the Line. Jerry Lee (Martin Kaye) trots out a little number he's been working on called Great Balls of Fire. And so on.

But, like Elvis says, that's all right. It's what we want to hear. Besides, Escott and Mutrux are canny enough to turn the session into a tasty buffet of vintage rock, country and R&B. Aside from their own hits, the four rip into songs by three major black rockers of the time – Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley – while Elvis's singer girlfriend (Kelly Lamont) favours us with Little Willie John's Fever (although she anticipates the better-known Peggy Lee version, which wasn't recorded until 1958).

The actor-musicians for this North American touring production – some of them veterans of the show's year-long Broadway run in 2010-11 – are impressive imitators. The best of them is Keeling's Cash. He nails the Man in Black's rumbling bass-baritone beautifully, both when speaking and singing. Doing a delightful rendition of that coal miner's lament Sixteen Tons, his voice plummets as if it were falling down a mine shaft.

The liveliest performance, though, comes from Kaye as the upstart Lewis, the cocky kid of the quartet whose mouth and ego are as out of control as his piano playing. He's a particular irritant to Lee Ferris's older Perkins, who is already frustrated at his inability to repeat the success of Blue Suede Shoes. Kaye and Ferris, both excellent musicians, wind up channelling the rivalry into some blistering piano-guitar exchanges.

As Elvis, Clendening has the toughest job – playing the most impersonated of all singers. He doesn't really look like Presley and his vocals are only approximate. You keep forgetting it's the King up there, until he breaks into those signature hip-swiveling moves and splay-legged poses.

Christopher Ryan Grant almost gets equal stage time as the stocky, genial Phillips, who acts as narrator and is portrayed as the session's instigator and an underappreciated visionary. In his cozily crummy studio – simply but effectively evoked in Derek McLane's scenic design – smiling Sam has set these four poor Southern boys on the road to fame and fortune. Now, like prodigal sons, they're starting to abandon him for bigger recording companies. With jukebox musicals, you get accustomed to hearing the audience applaud every song as if it were at a concert. At Thursday's performance, though, there was also applause after Grant's Phillips delivered an impassioned speech about not selling out.

That might be because, beneath its rollicking good-times nostalgia, Million Dollar Quartet has a hint of sadness. The Elvis we see in this show is the one who has already been refashioned as a mediocre movie star and who will – despite a vow he utters here – end up two decades later as a bloated self-parody in Las Vegas. The others would also battle their share of demons in the years ahead. The next time they played together, as a trio after Presley's death, they billed themselves "the Survivors."

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Million Dollar Quartet runs until July 29.

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