REVIEW: Million Dollar Quartet (The Civic)

Review by James Wenley

Million Dollar Quartet

[Rock ‘n’ Roll Avengers]

There’s a bit of scuttlebutt as to what happened when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins got together in Memphis at Sun Records on December 4, 1956 for an impromptu jam session (that, after years of legal wrangling, became an album in 1981). Cash is said to have only turned up for the photo, though swore he was on the record.

Perkins’ star was on the wane, Lewis was yet to rise, Cash had walked the line but hadn’t yet fell into the ring of fire, and Presley was a musical phenomenon and film-star (though in this show says a Las Vegas appearance hadn’t gone down well with the older crowd).

The producer who assembled these rock ‘n’ roll Avengers was Sam Phillips, played by Jason Donovan, who is credited in the programme as the man who created rock ‘n’ roll.

While these artists’ music is now ubiquitous, and with our distance feels quite innocent, in 1956 rock ‘n’ roll was popular but not entirely accepted; the sexuality of the “devils music” provoking a moral panic.

It’s a great premise for a jukebox musical. Not only can you draw from the album tracks, but you can also dip into each of the artists’ back catalogues. Million Dollar Quartet debuted in 2006 in Florida, went to Broadway, and this production, based on the West End production, comes to us directly from a UK tour.

Unfortunately, Million Dollar Quartet, written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, is not narratively ambitious. For all that could happen with this combination, not a lot actually does.

Sure, there’s some plot hooks in there. Phillips has an offer to sell up Sun Records and re-team with Presley at RCA. Perkins and Cash aren’t sure if their futures are with Phillips. Perkins feels threatened by the upstart Lewis, and has a chip on his shoulder after Presley performed his song – ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ – on the Ed Sullivan show. What is the value of loyalty, and at what cost stardom?

But, confined to the recording studio set with brief flashbacks, it’s not enough to stretch over two acts. The scrim drops arbitrarily for interval. Right at the end they down instruments for a rush of drama, but it comes too late.

Another approach would be to start in the studio, then have Act One as an extended flashback as Phillip battles to build Sun, and track his first discoveries and early work with the artists. (One of the more interesting flashbacks that we do get is of Elvis finding his voice, transitioning from a Dean Martin impersonator to the future King.) Then, they might have returned to the studio just before interval. That would have solved the problem of stretching the studio action, and extended the show’s interest in showing us different aspects of the artists beyond their star images.

As it is, the plot is very secondary to the music, a frame for the showcase of these legendary tracks. They are presented for our enjoyment, and mostly are not given further meaning in the story by attaching them to the emotions, struggles, wants or desires of the characters. It’s a compilation album approach to storytelling, rather than integrated musical theatre. “Just play the song,” one of them implores, and that’s exactly what they do.

While dramaturgically it’s not completely sound, the show’s saving grace is that musically it sounds incredible. The Civic speakers are cranked to full. The cast, playing live, are the real deal; as the announcer says, “these boys aren’t faking”.

The cast evoke rather than impersonate. Ross William Wild’s Presley has the swinging hips but lacks the charisma, and, perhaps going against our expectations, is outshone by the others in the quartet. Matthew Wycliffe is a steely Perkins, giving us a stirring version of ‘Who do you Love?’ Robbie Durham numbers as Cash get some of the biggest reactions from the opening night crowd, dropping into a satisfying bass. Then there’s Martin Kaye, who has been playing Jerry Lee Lewis since 2011. His character, eager to prove himself against the established talent, is a vortex of energy: as he plays the piano his feet are a whirlwind, even lifting his foot to the keys during ‘Real Wild Child’.

Surrounded by big personalities, Donovan plays Phillips as both a clear-eyed commercial realist and as a giddy fan, his joy palpable as the guitars twang, the drums clash, and the recording tape rolls on. He can’t do what they can do, but he’s secure in his place.

It’s a romantic time capsule of musical production in the period, though it’s very much a man’s world. Presley arrives with his current arm-candy, Dyanne (invented for the show), played with gusto by Katie Ray. She gets to sing, but not pick up a guitar. Quartet also draws attention to others not in the room, by discussing Presley’s appropriation of black music. Phillips makes clear that one of his appeals is that he could be the acceptable white face of a music revolution.

There are a few easter eggs in the dialogue that reference later song titles, underscoring the musical influence of these artists. The show is also elevated by our knowledge of the ups and downs they are yet to face.

In the inevitable curtain call the quartet perform a hit parade of songs that they hadn’t yet worked into the show. Despite Quartet’s failings as musical theatre, it’s worth it all just to get us to this moment; one more chance to appreciate the impeccable musicianship of this cast.

Million Dollar Quartet has a very short Auckland season, so get in before Elvis and co leave the building.

Million Dollar Quartet plays at The Civic until 15 June. Details see Auckland Live

SEE ALSO: review by Nik Smythe

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