Anyone who loves early rock ‘n’ roll─ that’s a lot of people ─ will enjoy the Sudbury Theatre Centre’s season opener, Million Dollar Quartet. The musical with main characters Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, has a lot to like with standout musical performances.
Million Dollar Quartet was a hit on Broadway, London’s West End, and just about everywhere else it has played since 2010. The STC worked in co-operation with1000 Islands Playhouse on this theatrical snack that captured Sudbury’s opening night audience from the beginning number, Blue Suede Shoes, written by Perkins and made famous by Presley, to the encore finale, Lewis’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. The musical is directed by Rob Kempson, who is the assistant artistic director at the Gananoque theatre.
Quartet is based on a true story. In December 1956, Presley, on his way to becoming a legend with five hit records and an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, dropped by Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, to visit his early mentor, Sam Phillips, and check out Perkins’s recording session. Another Sun artist, Cash, was also at the studio that day.
The musicians started to jam and a recording technician turned on the tape recorder. A reporter was called in, a photo was taken and a story was written for the Memphis daily with the headline Million Dollar Quartet. But interestingly, the tapes were not released on vinyl until 1981, a decade after Phillips sold Sun Records. The music was later released as a two-album set, The Complete Million Dollar Session in 1987.
Writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have added some conflict to dramatize the historic jam session but there is no evidence Perkins didn’t like Lewis, Philips was thinking about selling Sun Records to join RCA, or that Cash had just signed a contract with Columbia. (He didn’t leave Sun until 1958.)
The star of the show is the well-known and well-loved soundtrack which challenges the actors playing the famous four. Calvin Levack (Lewis), Jess MacMillan (Cash), Michael Vanhevel (Presley) and Joshua Wiles (Perkins), all new to the STC, are talented musicians who don’t disappoint. Musical numbers include Great Balls of Fire, Folsom Prison Blues, Hound Dog, and Memories are Made of This.
Jonathan Patterson plays Sam Phillips, the story’s narrator. Shruti Kothara plays Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne. Wow, can she can sing and dance. Her songs include Fever, and I Hear You Knocking.
The theatre centre is off to a rockin’ start with Million Dollar Quartet. The 46th season is also off on a rocky start with the loss of artistic director Caleb Marshall in June, and a sizeable debt accumulated during previous seasons that offered challenging and thought-provoking theatre that was not always appreciated by Sudbury audiences.
A few more productions such as Million Dollar Quartet will put the theatre back in the black.
Vicki Gilhula is the associate publisher and editor of Sudbury Living Magazine.