TNW show will rock the house

Prince George is getting a discount on classic rock 'n' roll.

Theatre NorthWest is where this musical gold is on sale.

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Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis comprised a secret million-dollar quartet, one night in a private musical meeting at Sun Studios. It was Dec. 4, 1956.

No poster could hold the zeroes if you tried to calculate the value of that session in today's dollars. It was a real-life script that no writer would dare attempt, so the play Million Dollar Quartet could only ever come out of raw rock 'n' roll reality.

The four hall-of-famers ended up there in that Memphis studio that fateful night quite by accident.

Cash was huge at the time with I Walk The Line and its B-side smash Get Rhythm only seven months old, and his first previous chart hits Cry Cry Cry, Folsom Prison Blues and I'm So Doggone Lonesome still fresh in the public's mind from the year before. Yet he was far from the peak of his career.

Lewis was showing signs of his powerful potential, but he still hadn't released any of his biggest hits. Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On were just about to pop, but hadn't been tracked yet. He was known then for his popular cover version of the Ray Price hit Crazy Arms, and he was clearly an earth-shattering piano player. He wasn't a household name yet, but his peers all knew he was The Killer.

The Memphis Flash was the biggest star of the group at that time and would always be so. Elvis would one day be The King, and he was well on his way by that night, with a solid mass of traditional country and gospel tunes plus culture-quaking hits like That's All Right, Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog, Don't Be Cruel and one called Blue Suede Shoes.

The other star in the room knew that song better than any. Perkins penned it, thanks to some ideas that came from Cash in a casual conversation. Perkins' original version of the song was bigger than any single Elvis had released to that point including The King's own cover which would eventually become the defining version. Perkins added the smash hit Boppin' The Blues to his accomplishments that year. He was a hot commodity that winter night on Union Avenue.

Perkins was in a recording session with Lewis on piano the night Cash booked himself into Sun Studios to track some new material of his own. Elvis came through the door to have a meeting with legendary producer Sam Phillips.

It was Phillips, wily star-maker that he was, who suggested the four of them drop all their plans, gather up some of the other session musicians in the place, and have some fun together.

Did they know or did they not that Phillips happened to reach across the mixing board and push the Record button?

"This isn't supposed to be so much fun," said the play's Prince George director Jack Grinhaus, who is also a musician with an affinity for this watershed era in music history. "For me, the storyline within the play that I feel best is Carl Perkins. I know the play is centred on Sam Phillips, the mastermind of the whole special night, but you can really sense the tension between Perkins and Elvis, and you know it's all over Blue Suede Shoes and how it all came down to some quirks of fate that Elvis basically took over that song right at the peak of Perkins' success."

Grinhaus is a history buff, especially history that relates to the arts of his profession. The Beatles give full credit for their own legendary careers to Elvis and the other inventors of the rock 'n' roll genre, that early amalgam of country, rockabilly, jazz, blues, and attitudes.

Grinhaus is also fresh in the studio of his own theatre company, which turns 25 years old this year, before his time in Prince George. He spotted that the most popular play TNW ever produced was The Buddy Holly Story, so as a tribute to that subject matter he summoned Million Dollar Quartet from the canon of modern stage shows.

Not every version of Million Dollar Quartet is the same, though. He had some production choices to make. Some versions paint on a veneer of glitz almost like going to see a Vegas show. He went a different direction.

"I wanted to bring people right into the room. That's where the fascination lies, I think," he said. "Can you imagine being a fly on the wall the night those four icons all sat down together and jammed? That's what we are doing. We get to be the fly on the wall together. They weren't glamourous that night, they were just four musicians who ended up in the same room, and ended up having a lot of fun together, despite all the egos and all the hype and all the complicated lives they were leading. This was pure music made by four of the best ever. This night predates so much of the stardom that was still to come, so let's just be in the room together and enjoy that moment with them."

This isn't a musical. It's a play that's loaded in music, but it's not a musical. It's a jam session, not a concert. More than 40 songs make an appearance in the play, but it's more like a campfire than a revue.

"This is about an era as much as it is these performers," said Grinhaus. "All four of them had older brothers they lost to tragic death. All four came from extraordinary poverty - poverty people now could scarcely imagine. They were out in the fields as children picking cotton, sharecropping, living at the bottom of American society at the time, so who did they have surrounding them? Black people. They were all exposed almost constantly to the music of African Americans of that day, right at the source, and that had everything to do with what they brought out in their own music. And it changed the world."

Million Dollar Quartet will change Prince George from

Nov. 22 to Dec. 12 at TNW. Tickets are already going quickly.

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