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Million Dollar Quartet feasts on the rich musical history of London, Ont.

iPhoto caption: Photo by Dahlia Katz.
/By / Apr 29, 2024

Did you know that one of the most important cities in the history of rock and roll is just a few hours west of Toronto?

London, Ont. was designated Canada’s first UNESCO City of Music in 2021, thanks to its deep roots in the music industry. The city continues to host world-class musical acts as well as local favourites, and music is woven into every corner of London’s cultural identity. Johnny Cash’s manager Saul Holiff called London home for most of his life, and this month, that legacy lives on thanks to his niece, Kelly Holiff, who plays Dyanne in the Grand Theatre’s production of Million Dollar Quartet.

Million Dollar Quartet is a jukebox musical that pays homage to the greatest one-night-only jam session of all time. On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis joined forces in Memphis, and in Million Dollar Quartet, actors bring these legends to life, playing their greatest hits with real instruments onstage. It’s an electrifying, one-act musical that opened at the Grand Theatre on April 19, and since then it’s been bringing audiences to their feet every night.

“Audiences are jumping up and dancing at the end of the show,” said director Julie Tomaino in an interview. “It’s such an easy show to watch. It’s short, and it contains so many songs you already know and love, and so many big personalities.” 

According to Tomaino, the cast and creative team put in countless hours to ensure that the performances honour — rather than mimic — the real people represented in the show.

“I definitely did a lot of research, and my assistant and I share a document where we kept videos of these people performing back in the day,” she said. ‘We referenced that, but we didn’t want to copy anything. I wanted the actors who I cast specifically because they embodied the essence of the characters. They didn’t necessarily look exactly like the character or real person, but they had that essence. It was really a collaboration between the actors and myself.”

According to music director Patrick Bowman, the real lives of Perkins, Cash, Presley, and Lewis made the musical process all the more exciting. “It was important to me to honour the original recordings and the original artists who made them,” he said. “But I also knew it was going to be a bit of a task to adapt some of the music to work effectively in a theatrical setting.”

Million Dollar Quartet is a unique musical because its music director doesn’t need to be on keys or leading a pit band — all the music in the show is produced by the guys and gals onstage, who keep their own time as they perform. “That gave me the opportunity to just listen throughout the whole process, and get into a really deep level of detail with the music,” said Bowman. “I didn’t have to split my energy, which was pretty exciting for me. Normally, if I’m at the piano, I can sort of steer things, and change the timing of things on the fly. But that was all out of my hands, other than listening to the performers and giving them feedback. It was liberating to get to listen so much, and also a little bit discombobulating to have to give up the reins.”

Kelly Holiff’s character Dyanne accompanies Elvis to the Sun Records studio and sings such classics as “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking.” Given her family’s connection to Johnny Cash, she says she’s honoured to get to bring this story to life in a city so thoroughly steeped in the history of rock and roll.

“I’ve always thought this show is just so fun,” she said in an interview. “I’ve always wanted to do Million Dollar Quartet, and I’m so glad I get to do it at the Grand. It’s one of the nicest theatres we have in Canada — it’s gorgeous.”

Kelly Holiff plays Dyanne in Million Dollar Quartet at the Grand Theatre in London.

Although Holiff herself is originally from Richmond Hill, much of her family calls London home. “I drove by my uncle’s home the other day just to see it,” she recalled. “A lot happened for him here in London with Johnny. I knew at some point that I would hopefully work for the Grand, which would be very cool in itself because of my connection to the city. But to then add the aspect of doing a show that features Johnny… that’s really intense. This has been just a really cool project for me.

“I felt like I knew Johnny,” she continued. “I heard all the stories as a kid.”

As for the crowd-pleasing nature of Million Dollar Quartet, Tomaino says that shows like this one are part of the secret of getting audiences to see more theatre.

“We want to challenge the audience a little bit, to have them appreciate a new take on something,” she said. “We honour and give them exactly what they want, but we also push the boundaries of what that looks like…I think what audiences are looking for is to be entertained, and not to be challenged, which is hard. But I think we can do both. I think we can do it all. We need to take care of them — they’re the ones paying our bills, for lack of a better way to say it — but we also want to push them. That’s where the magic happens.”

Million Dollar Quartet runs at the Grand Theatre until May 11. Tickets are available here.

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.



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