Review: "Million Dollar Quartet" at Port Hope Festival Theatre

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

I couldn’t help but remember the adage “Good things come to those who wait” after seeing the opening night performance of ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ (from the book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott) now onstage at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre.

The premise is rather interesting. On December 4, 1956, an extraordinary jam session took place at Sun Records in Memphis with young hopeful musicians Johnny Cash (Matthew Fletcher), Jerry Lee Lewis (Jackson Seib), Carl Perkins (Isaac Bell) and Elvis Presley (Tyler Burton). We are introduced to the story through the narrator and manager of Sun Records, Sam Phillips (Daniel Abrahamson).  Along for the ride is Presley’s girlfriend at the time, Dyanne (Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane).

Anna Treusch’s set design of the Sun Records Recording studio fills and fits the Capitol Stage nicely. We learn the studio was formerly an auto body repair shop. There is a piano angled stage right. From what I could tell far right, I saw a garbage can and box which could possibly be outside at the back of the studio. Three microphones from the period can be found lined up along centre stage. Along the back of the stage is the recording booth where manager Phillips stands as the musicians are recording. There is a definite 50s look and feel of the set especially in hearing the fine selection of preshow music from the era.  In front of the recording booth we find two instrumentalists who are part of the production – brother Jay on bass guitar (Duncan Stan) and Fluke on the drums (Justin Han).

These musicians are wonderfully solid vocalists throughout the entire production.  There were a few issues (not many) with sound balance that, I’m sure, will be rectified immediately so the lyrics to each song can be heard. Many audience members around me were humming along quietly or keeping their foot tapping or nodding of their heads.

But this is where I say, “Good things came to us in waiting for the second act.” Yes, there were some top-notch musical moments in the first act, but the script and not the performers seems to really lack focus before the interval. The plot unravels as we are introduced to the celebrations and secrets of these up and coming rock and country artists, but I wasn’t feeling any connection to the story and script at all. My guest also agreed that something was missing for her as well.

However, hang on to your hats, kids, as I don’t think this bit of information is spoiling anything for future audiences.  All I can say is WOW when the second act began right to the conclusion of the production. There was so much joy in song and performance moments radiating from the Capitol stage. Director Susan Ferley and Music Director Daniel Abrahamson are to be congratulated for that surprise element (and I promise not to give spoiler alerts here as well). Ms. Ferley and Mr. Abrahamson’s direction in performance and music highlighted they wanted this opening night audience (and future audiences, of course) to have a good time.

And my guest and I did have a good time once we saw how the second act just took off and soared in performance and song.  Daniel Abrahamson also plays the opening narrator, Sun Records recording producer/impresario Sam Phillips. Mr. Abrahamson’s Phillips is all business with just the right touch of bravado and smarminess as he recounts to us how he discovered each lad in the hopes of getting him to renew his contract with Sun Records. As the young country artist Johnny Cash, Matthew Fletcher captured Mr. Cash’s vocal range specially in the low bass/baritone range for ‘I Walk the Line’ in the second act. Mr. Fletcher’s costume of the black vest/pants and white shirt just rang Johnny Cash.  There is an effective dramatic moment captured beautifully between Messrs. Fletcher and Abrahamson in the second act that I don’t want to spoil here, but it rang believable and natural to me.

Tyler Burton incorporates Elvis’s hip and leg swivel expertly in many of the songs he sings. From my seat, I could see that Mr. Burton was also trying to incorporate that pouty lip look that made young teen girls swoon and go wild. Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane is a fine looking Dyanne, and her version of ‘I Hear You Knocking’ is sexy and provocative. As Carl Perkins, Isaac Bell encapsulates that element of uncertainty in wondering if he is going to be able to continue in the music industry. There is also a scrappy side to Perkins in meeting the young Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time, and their intense confrontations in both acts never venture over the top.

Jackson Seib comes dangerously close to stealing the show as the energetically, vibrant Jerry Lee Lewis, but thankfully he never allows his performance to venture over the top or to upstage his fellow actors. Yes, there are highly effective dramatic moments in ‘standing his ground’ in his confrontations with Carl Perkins, but Mr. Seib’s high spirited and athletic workout at the piano is marvelous to watch and to hear. I couldn’t help but smile each time the focus was on him.

The concert at the end of this nearly two-hour production (without an interval) is the ice cream dessert for a summer evening. Truly thrilling and magical way to conclude an afternoon or evening of solid entertainment.  It’s worth the drive to Port Hope.

‘Million Dollar Quartet’ continues to September 1 at The Capitol Theatre, 20 Queen Street, Port Hope, Ontario. For tickets please visit www.capitoltheatre.com or telephone 1-800-434-5092 or 905-885-1071.

Directed by Susan Ferley with Musical Direction by Daniel Abrahamson. Set Designer: Anna Treusch; Techncial Director: Stirling Bogie; Sound Designer; Jason Cabanaw; Lighting Designer: Gabriel Cropley; Costume Coordinator: Emily Burgess; Production Stage Manager: Charlene Saroyan