The Million Dollar Quartet stage show is at The Festival Theatre recreating the sounds of an impromptu recording session between four young music recording stars in Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis on December 4th 1956 that history would look back on as one of the most iconic events in rock’n’roll history. The reason of its importance was the Sun records recording artists present – Carl Perkins (with his brothers Clayton and Jay and drummer W S Holland), Johnny Cash and the soon to have his first record released Jerry Lee Lewis. Passing by that day on a visit was the former Sun recording star Elvis Presley with his girlfriend Marilyn Evans (who was not identified from the full version of the now famous photo for many decades). Realising what he had in the room, Sam Phillips (ever the promoter and hustler) called the local newspaper, the “Memphis Press-Scimitar” who sent a reporter and photographer along, and the next day the now classic story, headline and photograph “The Million Dollar Quartet” appeared in print.
Written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and directed by Ian Talbot, this show sticks fairly closely to the known facts, but introduces some new elements to the story, the most obvious being that Elvis’ girlfriend is now a fictional singer called Dyanne. Set and costume design are by David Farley and the convincing recreation of the recording studio is the perfect setting for our performers as everything is played live on this show. That decision to make this a live show is probably one of the main reasons why it has become such a major success wherever it has played, and our performers here – Ross William Wild (Elvis Presley), Matthew Wycliffe (Carl Perkins), Robbie Durham (Johnny Cash) and Martin Kaye (Jerry Lee Lewis) all manage to capture on stage some of that energy and magic that was present at the original recording session. Katie Ray (Dyanne) gets to put on some classic songs too, a very good version of the Peggy Lee classic “Fever” being one of them.
Keeping everything together and the story line flowing (with flashbacks to how he first met our stars) is Jason Donovan (Sam Phillips). Jason Donovan seems to have roles like this one down to a fine art and has that skill of at times appearing not to do very much but in fact doing a lot as he is experienced enough as an actor to know how to hold an audience’s attention without being over obvious. Jason may be the big name in the credits and the glue that holds this story together, but he also knows that it is the music that is the real star here and gives all of the other performers plenty of space to work in.
There are some great songs in here to work with – “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Great Balls Of Fire”, “Walk the Line” and “Hound Dog” to name a few. The original recording sessions drew heavily on gospel songs that all four singers had grown up with, so it was great to hear some of those too...”Peace in The Valley” from Ross William Wild as Elvis being one of my favourites in this show as I have always loved the sound of Elvis singing gospel songs. There is an energy on this stage that captures a little bit of that rebellion that was early rock’n’roll and a big part of that feeling comes from a very energetic performance by Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis. Set against the well documented very polite and respectful southern manners of the other three, Jerry really was the “Wild Man “ of rock’n’roll and has always been my favourite of the four. This is a stage show though and not just a concert, and all four of our “Million Dollar Quartet” and Dyanne do a great job on some of the softer and dramatic moments in the story line.
This is a show that reminds us instantly when you hear these songs performed that rock’n’roll was always a fusion of country, blue grass and gospel music. You cannot separate one sound from the other here. It was something special in these raw young performers that Sam Phillips recognised, and he had the vision to hear something that no one else heard and let every one of them develop their own unique sound and style.
Despite the importance of these recording sessions to history, Sam Phillips seems to have been very lucky that recording engineer on the day of the planned Carl Perkins sessions, Jack Clement, decided to keep recording what was in the studio. The tapes of the session were not released until the early 1980s when Sun Records’ new owner (bought in 1969) eventually re-discovered them amongst thousands of hours of tape. The now classic photograph of Elvis Presley seated at piano surrounded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash of course makes its appearance on stage too. This however, like the one printed in the newspaper, is the cropped version that does not show Elvis’ girlfriend Marilyn Evans seated on the edge of the piano.
Our finale for this show is a great run through of some rock’n’roll classics that invites anyone who wants to get up and dance. Just a simple feelgood show with some great music, very good musicians recreating those classic sounds and an almost fairy tale story from the very beginnings of rock’n’roll. If I could select any room in history to be a casual observer in, this would have been one of them.
Review by Tom King