Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Million Dollar Quartet

Image Source: Backstage Pass
Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Musical
Date: February 13 2017
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

A show about Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins sounds like one hell of a night of musical entertainment, with tons of classic hits and dance moves to keep one's attention. As it turns out, Million Dollar Quartet takes a different approach with these four huge names; but don't despair, because the show remains a very enjoyable night at the theatre.

Million Dollar Quartet looks back at Tuesday December 4 1956, a night when the aforementioned names all happened to be at the Sun Records studios in Memphis, Tennessee on the same night, but for different reasons. After a quick opening number of Blue Suede Shoes, the story is told by Sam Phillips (the owner of Sun Records, played by Jason Donovan), and one-by-one, the mega-stars arrive. First to arrive is Lewis (Ashley Carruthers), who at the time wasn't well-known but quickly makes his presence felt through a combination of his obvious musical talents and his overbearing, occasionally rude nature. Next in is Perkins (Matthew Wycliffe), who is coming to record what he hopes will be his next big hit, but who doesn't take kindly to the somewhat annoying Lewis.

Cash (Robbie Durham) arrives shortly thereafter, although the reasons for his appearance vary; Johnny suggests that he came because he knew that Elvis would be on hand a little later (and Presley, played by Ross William Wild, is the last to show up, alongside his girlfriend Dyanne, played by Katie Ray), but he also confides in private to Perkins that he is planning to inform Phillips of his decision to leave and join Columbia Records. Elvis is essentially there just to pay a visit to his old boss Phillips, but it becomes clear that, deep down, he would really like to re-align himself with his previous manager.

After initial hullabaloo between all four as well as the occasional hint of jealousy, Phillips finds a way to get all four on board, and they (along with Dyanne) start to appreciate significance of the occasion that has seen these big names, some of whom would become major stars in the future, all jamming together with an audience of essentially nobody bar the backing musicians. The contrast between the foursome is interesting due to their different musical talents (some were renowned for singing alone, whereas others are more memorable for their instrumental work despite boasting strong vocals themselves), the different positions in their careers (some had already made it big, whereas others had yet to break through), and their varied opinions on Sun Records. You have Lewis, a company man of sorts whose faith to Phillips is unwavering. You have Perkins, who initially believes in Phillips but knows deep down that he must defect himself someday. You have Cash, Phillips' hottest prospect who is about to make the jump to a new label. Lastly, you have Elvis, the biggest star of all, albeit one who secretly wishes to reunite with his manager from the days of toil and struggle. Add in Phillips' own desire to make Sun Records as big as possible and his emphasis on faith and loyalty to the artists whom he helped groom, and you have the set-up for an intriguing finale; at some point, there is bound to be conflict of some sort, which threatens to spoil the mood on a pretty momentous evening.

The story takes centre stage as opposed to the music, occasionally too much; near the beginning especially, one is yearning for the actual songs to begin. Nevertheless, the plot is engaging, partly because it is based on fact, and the travelling over thousands of miles to radio stations and small bars just to get a potential smash-hit record played over their networks provides a sharp contrast to the modern era of music, whereby reality shows or social media are largely responsible for the creation of the current generation's biggest stars, as well as a real emphasis on looks and sex appeal as opposed to actual musical talent. Sure, Elvis was the industry's biggest heartthrob ever, but he had the vocals and the dance moves to back up his good looks.

As for the performances: everybody does a good job but, unsurprisingly, it's the four artists at the centre of it all who shine the brightest. Ashley Carruthers as Lewis arguably steals the show, in part because his presence is felt throughout by either delivering controversial comments, humorous one-liners or simply demonstrating how adept he is on the piano. Robbie Durham also does a tremendous job at bringing Johnny Cash to life, so to speak; Cash had a distinct style and tone to his voice which is hard to recreate when you're surrounded by three high-octane performers, but his portrayal of Cash is nothing less than believable. That's not to discount Matthew Wycliffe as Perkins, who ensures that the lesser-known of the four stars is never forgotten during the show, or of course Ross William Wild as Elvis, even if Presley's performances are surprisingly brief on the whole. I also felt that Jason Donovan performed well as Sam Phillips, conjuring up images of every typical "I'll make you rich, son!" promoter whose primary goals are money and fame but, over time, still has the heart to form a bond with his star performers, making their eventual (if not inevitable) departures that much harder to take).

And let's not forget the songs, because many of the hits (or at least the early hits, since we're talking about late 1956 here) that you would associate with these classic names are performed during the show. I mentioned Blue Suede Shoes, but we also have Peace In The Valley, Down By The Riverside, I Hear You Knocking, See You Later Alligator (a Perkins hit which closes the show, and is accompanied by Perkins playing his guitar over his shoulder, and Lewis - not to be outdone - playing the piano over his shoulder), Memories Are Made Of This, Hound Dog, Walk The Line, Great Balls Of Fire and other songs which older members of the audience will love. Peace In The Valley may have been the best-performed track given the excellent performances of all involved, but most of the tracks are real highlights of the show, backed up by some outstanding supporting musicians. The intimate studio setting is authentic and brings a certain intimacy to the production, and there are some nice touches using images and text (which I won't spoil here) that form a nice cherry on the top of this musical cake.

Slight knocks would be that the audio was occasionally hard to hear, particularly during regular dialogue scenes and especially near the beginning of the show. Sometimes, classic musical tunes would be broken up into parts for Phillips to move the story along, which worked once or twice but may have happened a little too regularly (other similar devices, like the foursome having the volume of their singing reduced while Phillips spoke with Marilyn outside, were more effective). Lastly, as implied towards the start, anybody expecting something of a greatest hits' compilation of the four musical legends may be disappointed; however, the name Million Dollar Quartet refers less to the people in the studio that evening but more to the gathering as a whole, especially since it would be the only ever time that all four came together for one big musical jam.

Overall, Million Dollar Quartet may be different to what you might initially expect, but it still delivers a thoroughly enjoyable story, and enough moments of musical magic to have you fondly reminiscing about one of the most iconic eras in the history of rock'n'roll.

Overall Rating: 9/10 - Outstanding

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