Theatre review - Million Dollar Quartet, Palace Theatre Manchester
PUBLISHED: 13:23 16 May 2017 | UPDATED: 14:55 16 May 2017
Million Dollar Quartet is a rock'n'rollercoaster of a show and an absolute must-see for any music lover, says Kate Houghton
In 1953, Elvis Presley walked in to a recording studio, owned by Sam Phillips, in downtown Memphis, asking to record a record for his mother’s birthday. This he did and then he left. Twelve months later Phillips was seeking a ‘crooner’ to record a new song he had bought and recalled Presley, brought him back to audition and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s only history however because Phillips wasn’t satisfied with Elvis’s approach, pushing and pushing until something new, and very special, happened.
He did this again with Carl Perkins, guitarist extraordinaire and original author and singer of Blue Suede Shoes (a song Elvis later took and made his own), with Johnny Cash and again with the remarkable pianist, Jerry Lee Lewis. Labelled the ‘father of rock n roll’ Sam Phillips was a ground-breaker, a symbol of the eternal struggle of indie versus corporate and an inspiration to musicians and music-makers for generation to come.
In December 1956, the four rock’n’roll heroes came together for an impromptu jam session at Phillips’ recording studio, an occasion never to be repeated. Million Dollar Quartet is the story of that session and what went before – plus a whole lot of rock’n’roll!
If you love the music of the 1950’s, the wild rawness of it, the passion and the power of the voices and the instruments, then this is a must-see show. It is, in short, absolutely brilliant.
Sam Phillips is played by global star Jason Donovan, and he does it brilliantly. His accent is impeccable, his timing is excellent, his projection of the gloss of assurance over the perspiration of desperation as Phillips tries to re-sign Johnny Cash (after having already lost Elvis to RCA) and his sadness when Perkins announces his departure too (to Columbia, with Cash) is delicately done, with a skill that reminds you that this man started as an actor, before making his name in music.
Perhaps however the true and most breathtaking stars of the show are the young men who demonstrate such musical talent, such energy and such passion that you can truly appreciate how it might have felt to be a young person in the 1950’s, presented with this life-changing musical tour-de-force that was rock and roll. We all too easily forget now how dramatic the impact was of this music. It was banned in many US cities and states, in October 1956 Elvis was burned in effigy by crowds outraged by his sexy performances, concerned that he would corrupt America’s teens. An inkling of this reaction to the freedom suggested by rock and roll is given in the show, when Jerry Lee Lewis’ antics prove too much for his compatriots in the studio, although to us they seem no more than entertaining teenage antics.
Jerry Lee Lewis was played last night by Manchester-born Martin Kaye, who gave an electric performance, his piano-playing eliciting screams of delight from the audience. Screams also greeted Ross William Wild, whose Elvis impression may not have been perfect, but was quite brilliant all the same – he has the moves, the energy and most of the voice, and that’s alright with me. Matthew Wycliffe, in his role as Carl Perkins, delivered a masterclass in guitar playing, a truly brilliant performance in and of itself, never mind that he sings like a dream too. And while we’re talking of singing like a dream…oh my goodness Robbie Durham, as Johnny Cash, really, really nails it.
Million Dollar Quartet plays at The Palace Theatre Manchester until 20 May.