Writer: Colin Escott
Co-Writer: Floyd Mutrux
Director: Ian Talbot
Reviewer: Chris Oldham
The so-called jukebox musical is a tricky one. Sometimes trying to fit a band or artist’s back-catalogue into some kind of story that makes sense can feel more than a little forced. Setting the whole thing in a recording studio is certainly one way of solving that problem, and could well be why Million Dollar Quartet works so well.
Set on 4 December 1956, it tells the story of the evening in which Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and then session musician Jerry Lee Lewis came together at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee to jam together. Lured there by different means, the four men, along with Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne, spend the next few hours making music; while Phillips, struggling with an offer to sell his business to the much larger record label RCA, works up to offering Cash a new contract.
David Farley’s set shrinks the stage of the Hippodrome, bringing with it an engaging intimacy, while David Howe’s crafty lighting design regularly switches up both tempo and mood as the artists work their way through hit after hit from their repertoire, from I Walk the Line, to Hound Dog, to Great Balls of Fire.
The success of a show set in one room depends heavily on its cast. It’s good news then that casting director David Grindrod has gathered a hugely talented group of actors and musicians together to pull the whole thing off. Playing all their own instruments live on stage, they display an astonishing array of musical talent, charisma, and love of the material, while managing to naturally inhabit the characters they have surely so carefully studied.
Jason Donovan plays Phillips, the man with the Midas touch who is often credited as creating rock and roll. Donovan’s controlled, human performance sits at the centre of the narrative while the other four egos revolve around him. As Lewis, Martin Kaye steals many of the laughs, imbuing the young, manic, God-fearing country boy with staggering levels of energy. But this is the very definition of an ensemble piece, and Matthew Wycliffe (Perkins), Robbie Durham (Cash), and Ross William Wild (Presley) all rightfully get plenty of time centre stage too. Meanwhile, Katie Ray as Dyanne brings some much-needed gender diversity; her vocals soaring during her two huge solo numbers.
Although a little thin on story, the men’s intentions to go their separate ways after tonight are enough to sustain a layer of dramatic tension. And despite all the posturing, the cast is never better than when they’re going at it together; their rich, chill-inducing harmonies hitting the spot every time.
There’s no shying away from the fact that Phillips was looking for a white face to sell rock and roll to the white masses. And while occasional references to black singers like Chuck Berry, whose songs feature, hint that the story knows where it stands in the social and political landscape of the time, that’s just about as deep as things get.
Part concert, part impromptu jam session, Million Dollar Quartet is a passionate, exhilarating, historical snapshot of a time when the world was changing, and music with it.
Runs until 3 December 2016 then continues to tour | Image: Darren Bell