Million Dollar Quartet – Birmingham Hippodrome

Writers: Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrix

Director: Ian Talbot

Reviewer: James Garrington

Sam Phillips might be one of the least recognisable yet most important men in the history of popular music – for he was the founder and owner of Sun Studios in Memphis, and the man who is widely credited with creating rock’n’roll, discovering such talents as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. So it was that these four came together one day in December 1956 for one of the greatest impromptu jam sessions ever – the million dollar quartet of the title.

Jason Donovan takes centre stage as Phillips, providing a mixture of narrative and dialogue. As he only sings a few notes in this production, it could be easy to overlook him among the musicians on stage, but that is far from the case. He gives a relaxed, effortless performance in the role, wonderfully understated and totally at home with his character – the sort of effortless performance that actually takes a great deal of work to perfect. The result of this narrative, filling in back-story with a series of short flashbacks, is that the show takes a while to get going musically as the quartet assembles in the studio – but this is also an opportunity for some sharp dialogue and, for those unfamiliar with the history, an introduction to how it all happened.

Then comes the quartet – fine musicians all, and mostly sounding pretty similar to their characters as they start turning out the well-known songs. While it may be slow to start with, after the interval music is certainly the order of the day. One after another they come – Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog, I Walk the Line, Great Balls of Fire and many more, with the occasional gentler moment to break up the rock music – including a beautiful Down by the Riverside to a solo acoustic guitar. Between them Matthew Wycliffe (Carl Perkins), Robbie Durham as (Johnny Cash), Ross William Wild (Elvis Presley) and Martin Kaye (Jerry Lee Lewis) play and sing their way through the hits – still remembered and much loved sixty years on, such is the enduring popularity of this music. Joining the group is Katie Ray as Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne. Although very much a supporting role, Ray proves that she can turn on the vocals with the rest of them.

Standing out from the group has to be Kay’s Jerry Lee Lewis – not only because of his superb musicianship on piano (he captures Lewis’s distinctive style perfectly) but also his dialogue – little put-downs and asides, typical of a man with a huge ego trying to establish himself among better-known characters. The static set (David Farley) looks exactly how you might imagine a 1950s recording studio would look, and it all feels as though you are watching a group of guys getting together and having a good time.

It may be a little on the short side, but Million Dollar Quartet provides an evening of great fun – and if you are one of the many who love this sort of music you will be pretty much guaranteed to be tapping your feet and singing the songs.

Runs until 29 October 2016 and on tour | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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