Curtis Abriel is rolling through the golden years of rock 'n' roll, and it feels like especially familiar territory.
The seminal Prince George multi-instrumentalist, ubiquitous in the local live music scene, is one of the local cast members in the Theatre Northwest (TNW) production of Million Dollar Quartet, set to open on Nov. 22 (it runs to Dec. 12). Abriel is the one slappin' da bass as Brother Jay who, in real life, was Carl Perkins' brother and a fixture in the 1950s studio sessions and radio broadcasts around the Jackson-Memphis scene.
It is a position not alien to Abriel, who was also on stage portraying a member of The Crickets, the real-life band of that same rockabilly era, in the TNW production of The Buddy Holly Story. That show was the toast of 2013 and broke all box office records for TNW.
Now, as Jay Perkins, Abriel gets to travel back through that same golden window to the time when rock 'n' roll was being born.
"I feel I might be playing the exact same bass from Long & McQuade," said Abriel, "and this time I'm sensing the audience is going to exceed those numbers we achieved with Buddy Holly. There's something about this music, and these people we get to portray. They are fascinating, and I'm speaking as a musician, but I know they have a very special place in culture even if you don't sing or play an instrument."
Ferris Vasko had some catching up to do. The aspiring Prince George actor has been studying the 1950s music age through books, recordings and video as she prepares for the part of Dyanne, a fictitious backup singer modelled on actual dancer/vocalist Marilyn Evans who was the girlfriend of Elvis Presley at that point.
In the famous photo of Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash that sparked the writing of the play The Million Dollar Quartet, the picture also includes Evans. She was usually cropped out by the publishers of history, but she and another female voice are captured in the background of the actual tapes from that fateful night's recordings. Dyanne represents them both, in the "what if" of this play's script.
"I've been getting a playlist together of music from that era, especially female singers. Fifties jazz is really cool," said Vasko who is making her TNW debut. Sort of.
"This is my fourth year with TNW," she said, but none of it was on stage. "Technically I was called the front-of-house assistant but, yes, I was an usher. I've done props a couple of times, I'm the box office manager, and now I'm actually in the show which is super exciting."
She has done other stage work in the past, especially for the UNBC Musical Productions club. She is running lights for their upcoming production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, while maintaining a full-time course load studying English and Anthropology.
Abriel is the music director for Million Dollar Quartet, as well as playing bass, and that busy workload is typical of his schedule. He was similarly cast in Judy Russell's recent production of Cabaret, he was also with her for Legally Blonde, and he plays at Winston's Resto-Bar each Friday in addition to the other bands and events that call on his talents. He has even been the music director for the Prince George Cougars, in the past.
Holding down the rhythm in the Million Dollar Quartet band is another local talent who seems to be everywhere on local stages. Danny Bell, is the drummer named Fluke, based on actual rockabilly drummer W.S. Fluke Holland, who rattled the skins for a who's who of early stars of rock 'n' roll.
"It's fun music to play, a hard shuffle," said Bell who is well known for his band work and concert promotion around the city. He recently released an album under the moniker Danny Bell & His Disappointments. He said his workload prevented him from taking part in the Legally Blonde orchestra this summer, so this show comes as a welcome development.
"I did some of this work in high school, and I've been wanting to get back into pit bands and live theatre stuff," he said.
"I just love the setting, the atmosphere, the connection with the actors and the audience. This show was a lot more challenging than I first expected, so that's a real treat. And just working with Curits is exciting. He's so serious about the craft and so talented, so it's an honour to be in a band with him."
Rounding out the ensemble is Frankie Cottrell as Presley, Montgomery Bjornson as Lewis, Kenton Klassen as Cash, Edward Murphy as Perkins and David Sklar as Sam Phillips, the record executive who owned Sun Records and wisely pushed the Record button when they all gathered on Dec. 5, 1956 for this one night of rock 'n' roll history.