“What does rock’n’roll mean?”
At first glance, there’s little that can be said about Million Dollar Quartet really. It is not a show I would normally ever have thought of going to see, the music not being of my era or a genre that I know much about. But when a ticket was wafted in front of me combined with the knowledge that the show is closing mid-January, I thought ‘what the hey’ and trundled along to the Noël Coward Theatre for the evening. What was most surprising about was that I really rather enjoyed myself.
The show is based around the real life meeting of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins (have to admit I hadn’t heard of Perkins) on 4th December 1956 at the Sun Records recording studio in Memphis. Over the course of the evening, the four rip through over 20 of the songs for which they became hugely famous with the help of two additional musicians and Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne who’s on hand to provide the odd bit of vocal support. There’s also something of an attempt to work in some proper story: mainly around the record label shenanigans with professional rivalries coming to the fore, testing friendships and loyalties of these four men at different stages in their career.
There’s no denying that this dramatic side falls a bit flat: so little time is devoted to it and it does require a fair bit of pre-knowledge that it often feels rather rushed through. Bill Ward manfully deals with a whole load of expositionary dialogue as Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips who masterminded the meeting but essentially, this stuff is just filler for the music. And what music we get: songs like ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Down By The Riverside’, ‘I Walk The Line’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘See You Later Alligator’. All is sung and played lived by the actors and the band and it is all done with such aplomb that it is hard not to be impressed.
Michael Malarkey demonstrates just how much Rizzo from Grease is one of the greatest truth-tellers of our time when she sings ‘Elvis Elvis, let me be; keep that pelvis far from me’ as he is stunningly attractive and full of an incredible vitality as a youthful Presley. Oliver Seymour-Marsh impressed with his guitar skills even if I wasn’t too familiar with any of his songs as Carl Perkins and Derek Hagen has great fun as a gravelly Johnny Cash. Ben Goddard is simply extraordinary as Jerry Lee Lewis though, the quirky energy and insanity he brings to his piano playing has to be seen to be believed. Francesca Jackson gave us a fabulously sultry rendition of Fever too to balance the gender books a little.
Million Dollar Quartet does not pretend to be anything more than it is and in and of itself, it is a rather neat piece of entertainment. It sounds amazing throughout, it looks good in its simple set and it ends with a mini concert / tribute gig with a highly effective set tranformation that had (some) people up and dancing in the aisles. And though many, including myself, have been guilty of a deal of snobbery towards such shows, there’s no doubting its crowd-pleasing appeal. Looking around, it went down an absolute treat with the majority of the audience and if a show is bringing in audiences, can this really be declared a bad thing for the West End because it is a jukebox musical rather than a play. Had you asked me before I went, I would have tried to argue yes; now I’m not too sure. Goodness gracious indeed!