December 4, 1956 – Sun Records, Memphis. A seminal night in rock ‘n’ roll history, as Sun label boss Sam Phillips brings four of his greatest artists together to perform as one band: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash & Elvis Presley. And that is the basis for the show Million Dollar Quartet, which is the Royal Festival Hall’s Christmas offering this year.
When the show opens, it appears Carl Perkins is there for a recording session – he’s much in need of a hit after a long dry spell. Jerry Lee Lewis’ presence irritates him, from his cocky nature to his propensity to try & take over each song with his brilliant piano skills. Phillips has a plan to renew Johnny Cash’s contract that night, and he has invited former Sun artist Elvis Presley to witness this momentous occasion.
As is often the case with jukebox musicals, the story is a bit lacking, Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux’s book at times does feel like an after-thought. However, considering the subject matter of the show, there isn’t really scope for too much of a storyline. It is a celebration of a big moment in music history, so it’s to be expected that the songs are the primary focus – even if that means most of the dialogue exists to tee up the next performance. If you go in expecting much more from it you may come out feeling a bit disappointed. It’s more in the subcategory of Let It Be, in that respect, just with an attempt at a bit of a story.
David Farley’s set is a self-contained box on the Festival Hall stage, showing the Sun studio throughout. It has a ring of authenticity, particularly in the booth with its rolling tapes, recording the session. They make effective use of the outside space, for Phillips’ narrations & to simulate going outside, with thanks also to David Howe’s lighting design.
All of the music is played entirely by the company – excluding Martin Kemp as Sam Phillips, overseeing events. As well as the fantastically fun finale (including Jingle Bell Rock, for Christmas), what makes the show enjoyable is the incredible musicianship & performance factor from all involved. Matt Wycliffe’s electric guitar skills (as Carl Perkins) are clear for all to see, including a bit of showboating on a solo, and Ross William Wild has the Elvis Presley mannerisms down to a tee.
The real standout performances come from Martin Kaye (Jerry Lee Lewis) & Robbie Durham (Johnny Cash). Kaye’s a ball of energy, capturing the then 21 year old’s youthful spirit & almost virtuosic boogie-woogie piano playing. When Durham brings in the bass-baritone vocals it really does feel like Johnny Cash is in the room, complete with his infamous ‘gun’ guitar playing style.
My verdict? Light on story but big on history, some electrifying performances that do justice to the legends being celebrated – they sure know how to Jingle Bell Rock!
Million Dollar Quartet runs at the Royal Festival Hall until 2 January 2017, before continuing its UK tour. Tickets are available online and from individual box offices.