It's one of those things that sounds like a "too good to be true" apocryphal rock 'n' roll story: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis get together for an impromptu jam session.
But that actually did happen — 60 years ago last month, on Dec. 4, 1956, was the one and only gathering of what a newspaper editor immediately dubbed "the million-dollar quartet."
That's pretty much where truth ends and fiction begins in Million Dollar Quartet, the 2010 Tony Award-nominated Broadway hit kicking off 2017 at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
The musical's basis is in the facts — on that December day, rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins (played here by Kris Ulrich) was slated for a recording session at the famed Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tenn., with Sun record label founder Sam Phillips (Andrew Cecon, whose Phillips becomes our likeable narrator here).
Joining in on the session was Phillips' latest discovery, a then-mostly unknown piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis (Elliott Loran). Another of Phillips' discoveries — an already-famous Elvis Presley (Matt Cage) — dropped by unexpectedly, and Phillips quickly called up Johnny Cash (Greg Gale) to come join in. Rock history was made.
Writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux try to add some dramatic tension to their jukebox musical with a through line about Cash and Perkins' plans to leave the Sun label (which in reality they didn't do until 1958). Among the musical's ample flaws is the fact that this tension is quickly and unsatisfyingly brushed off.
High art this ain't. It's predictable and formulaic and the writing's often clunky. But it's really all about the music, and there, it's frankly fantastic fun.
Here again, Million Dollar Quartet takes a lot of artistic licence. The actual jam was heavy on gospel and bluegrass music. While numbers like Down by the Riverside and Peace in the Valley are included, this musical focuses more on the hits the members of the quartet are best known for — from Lewis's Real Wild Child to Perkins' Matchbox to Presley's Hound Dog to Cash's Folsom Prison Blues.
There are also a couple of numbers performed by Dyanne (Laura Olafson) — the girlfriend Presley brings along in this fictional account. (He did bring his then-girlfriend to the actual session, but her name wasn't Dyanne and she didn't sing.)
While Olafson puts her stunning voice to good use on a slinky, smoking rendition of Fever and a rocking I Hear You Knockin', the character is clearly a ham-fisted attempt to wedge a token female into the otherwise all-boy party.
Escott and Mutrux would've been better off leaving the character out entirely — both because her inclusion is a sexist exercise in tokenism, and because the character simply gets lost in the story of the rock 'n' roll pioneers.
Each performer playing one of those rockers gets his moments to shine, and each delivers impressively. Loran is the consistent show-stealer as the exuberant and conceited Lewis, but also shows off some truly remarkable chops on the piano.
Ulrich is less flashy as Perkins, who is put out by the fact he's overshadowed by Presley and Cash, but he delivers where it counts with some blistering guitar work.
Cage, a professional Elvis tribute artist, has the King's lip curl and gyrations down pat, and croons his numbers believably.
But Gale delivers perhaps the most spot-on impression here, with a "close your eyes and you'd think it was him" take on Johnny Cash, hitting the very lowest of Cash's deep notes with a beautifully rich bass-baritone.
Backed up admirably by drummer Ryan Voth (as W.S. "Fluke" Holland) and bassist Kraig Waye (as Carl Perkins' brother Jay), they rock through nearly two dozen tunes in director Steven Schipper's steady 105-minute (with no intermission) production.
They play the songs with infectious energy and irresistible enthusiasm, and goodness gracious, they play 'em loud and with great balls of fire.
It's not quite a million-dollar show. But if early rock 'n' roll is your thing, you'll still probably walk out feeling like a million bucks.
Million Dollar Quartet runs at the Royal MTC's John Hirsch Mainstage until Jan. 28.