In 1956, four great musicians happened to bump into each other at the studios of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Unsurprisingly, the result was a kind of impromptu jam session. The musicians in question were Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. All of these performers were then in their early twenties, being born between 1932 and 1935. And all of them were on their way to stardom and connected via the owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips. Apparently, they never played collectively again. 'Million Dollar Quartet' recreates this unique event, and incorporates some of the great songs from the early 1950s such as 'Blue Suede Shoes', 'Fever', 'Memories Are Made Of This', 'Down By The Riverside' and more than 20 others. It's a kind of rock and roll musical banquet.
But there's more than just music on offer because we learn something about the common experiences and roots of these famous four. The story of the event, and details about the performers' backgrounds are delivered by the owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips (played by Bill Ward) who acts as narrator. All the musicians respectfully call Sam 'Mr Phillips' making clear just who was in charge. Phillips comes across partly as surrogate father with much more than a hint of autocratic entrepreneur.
The arrival of the various musicians at the studios, seems a little forced and unnatural, even if this was the way that the event actually happened. And though we're given some inkling of the troubles these men were facing at the time, or were to endure in the rest of their lives, the relentless need to move into the next number breaks the narrative leaving us desparate to know more about all the characters, especially Sam Phillips.
The singing and playing is more than good enough, but the performances never quite reach the quality of the original artists, as one might expect. But there's not really much to carp about, and plenty to admire. For me, the evening went to Francesca Jackson as Elvis's girlfriend, Dyanne, who gives a moody, spine-tingling rendition of 'Fever'. But Derek Hagan is well-cast as the rather dour and gloomy Cash; Ben Goddard provides the quips and energy as the unconventional Jerry Lee lewis; Michael Malarkey is the baby-faced Presley out of his emotional depth in new-found stardom; and Robert Britton Lyons is the confidently professional Perkins. They're all very well-supported by Adam Riley on drums and Gez Gerrard on bass. And Bill Ward finds the right mix of characteristics in the role of Sam Phillips, even if the book couldn't find space to allow him to explore the the real depth of his character. Still, it's always a fine call in these situations where exceptional music vies with character detail and storyline.
Like other musicals, or musical plays I've seen, the party really starts to swing come the encores where the set changes and the musicians put on sparkly jackets to do some set-piece numbers. And it's here that the audience really seemed to get engaged with the music and the performers. Now I can see the benefit of working up the show to a climax, which of course can't be somewhere in the middle, but it left me wondering how the musical electricity might have been more evenly spread to the earlier scenes.
If rock and roll is your thing or you're into the history of popular music, then this should prove to be a great night out. Though the story leaves you somewhat frustrated, the music and singing are more than enough to compensate.
"What we see on stage is a celebration; and, if you're of a certain generation, it's a joy to hear once again numbers such as Hound Dog, Great Balls of Fire and I Walk the Line."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Efficient production the hits come thick and fast...The music is recreated in an enjoyably vigorous style...Despite the proficiency of the performances, there's a lack of visceral thrill here."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"There are many worse jukebox shows around, and the legendary status of the original event gives this show a broad potential audience."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times
"The show succeeds triumphantly in making you feel the joy of the music-making. On this score, in every sense, there isn’t a slicker, more polished set of impressionists in town."
Mark Shenton for The Stage
"No one could claim that this is a great, original or ground-breaking piece of work, but anyone who loves rock and roll is almost certain to have a good time."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph