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Million Dollar Quartet: artistry and marketing

by | Jun 30, 2023 | Review | 0 comments

publicity photo for Million Dollar Quartet at the Arts Club Theatre, Vancouver

The video design is the coolest thing.
(Set by Patrick Rizzotti. Actors: Emma Pedersen and Jay Clift
Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Director Bobby Garcia’s production of Million Dollar Quartet is so slick. His direction is tight, the design is fantastic, and the cast has talent pouring out of them. But I also felt like I was being marketed to and that significantly cut into my enjoyment. It might not cut into yours.

In Million Dollar Quartet, book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux fictionalize a real-life event. On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins converged on the Sun Records recording studio run by Sam Phillips in Memphis, Tennessee — and they jammed.

All the singers were signed to Sun Records at some point, which places Phillips, their mentor, at the centre of this story. Lewis is desperate to be signed by him. Others may be moving on.

As you’d expect, the song list features gigantic hits, including “Blue Suede Shoes”, “I Walk the Line”, “Great Balls of Fire”, and “Hound Dog”. Not that it matters, but the artists played none of these tunes in the original session, which mostly focused on the spirituals they grew up with. And it’s interesting to note that, in their purity, two of those spirituals — “Peace in the Valley” and “Down by the Riverside” — provide some of the most moving moments in Million Dollar Quartet.

The combination of entrepreneurial zeal and personal vulnerability that Jay Clift brings to his performance as Phillips grounds the evening by giving it a clear human fulcrum.

And, impressively, the performers playing the recording artists succeed as both actors and musicians. Felix LeBlanc brings a whole lot of bad-boy charisma to rockabilly artist Perkins and he plays a mean electric guitar — like vicious. Mateo Chavez Lewis shreds the piano as Jerry Lee Lewis and, like the original, he’s fond of using his instrument as a climbing structure.

Vocally, Tanner Zerr bottoms out on a couple of Cash’s lowest notes but, overall, his tone is velvety and he captures Cash’s gravitas and decency. Playing Elvis, Stephen Thakkar hurls himself into the pelvic gyrations and sings with the King’s throaty tenderness.

There’s a sixth character, too, Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne. (His real girlfriend at the time, the one who attended the session, but didn’t jam, was Marilyn Evans.) As Dyanne, Emma Pedersen sings a couple of solos, and adds some crazy high notes to group numbers, but her most significant contribution is her vivacity. (This is not a dig. If you’re playing this peripheral role, your basic assignment is to have a good time.)

And speaking of good times, Nicol Spinola’s choreography is full of ’em, and it’s beautifully executed by the cast.

The design elements are so good. Patrick Rizzotti’s basic recording-studio set is handsome in its own right, but it’s his integration of video that dazzles. When characters step into Phillips’s control room or onto the street for private conversations, they get picked up by video cameras that project their black-and-white scenes onto the studio’s big back walls. Video cameras also give us close-ups of the musicians as they’re playing: Lewis’s fingers flying over his keys, LeBlanc’s hands coaxing howls from his guitar strings. Thanks to video designer Joel Grinke, this really works.

It wouldn’t, of course, without the collaboration of lighting designer Itai Erdal who accommodates the video and creates a number of dramatic effects of his own, including striking tableaux.

With the exception of Phillips’s suit pants, which are weirdly shapeless, Alaia Hamer’s costumes hit the late-fifties bullseye: you gotta love those knit men’s shirts.

So, having experienced all this excellence, what’s my beef? Well, I’m getting sick of shows that provoke so little thought, challenge, or surprise — that are so clearly primarily commercially marketable products. Million Dollar Quartet is the third show I’ve seen in the past two weeks that exploits the musical nostalgia of boomers like me, the other two being Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and the Bard-on-the-Beach adaptation of As You Like It that’s stuffed with Beatles songs. Wrapping the music around a classic text, As You Like It is by far the most artful — and satisfying — of the bunch. But all three shows are clearly aiming themselves at old people’s wallets. That makes sense on a couple of levels: folks my age are the core theatre audience (not a good thing), and companies are trying to recoup pandemic losses. I’m sympathetic to the latter, but that’s very different from claiming to have been stimulated by the thematic content or artistic daring of this musical.

Besides, the Arts Club already mounted Million Dollar Quartet back in 2017. Even then, it felt like a preview of the songbook I’ll be hearing in my care home.

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. Inspired by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. Directed by Bobby Garcia. On Thursday, June 29. An Arts Club Theatre production running at the Granville Island Stage until August 6. Tickets and info

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