Million Dollar Quartet

Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Noël Coward Theatre
(2011)

If you are an old rocker eager to wallow in nostalgia then Million Dollar Quartet will be just the thing. It is a juke box musical with, to all intents and purposes, no plot but 23 rock and roll songs delivered by simulacra of four big names plus a token dame and backing band.

It is almost 55 years since the day when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis got together to jam at the Sun Records studio, a converted auto parts store in Memphis Tennessee. That was the only occasion when the quartet played together and was very much the end of an era rather than its start. Thereafter, these legends ploughed their own very successful furrows.

The songs are linked together by Bill Ward as Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, who breaks up the tunes up by briefly providing details of his own biography and those of the boys.

The stories also reveal their plans for the future, with Elvis already sold (like a footballer) to RCA and most of the others heading for the bright lights offered by Columbia Records. This is all a little hard on Phillips who turned the incipient bums into stars.

However, what everyone is paying for is the songs and, as we are repeatedly told, every note (including the odd dud) is played live and every song sung, admittedly aided by overly loud amplifiers. The music does the trick and takes over, peaking inevitably in a highly enjoyable four-song encore.

The rockers are an oddly-matched group. Michael Malarkey's diminutive Elvis, who brings along his latest squeeze, the soulful Dyanne, lacks any significant charisma but has the voice.

Robert Britton Lyons has been imported from the Broadway version for his impeccable ability to smoulder as Carl Perkins. Derek Hagen has a refreshing honesty and earnestness as the bible bashing Johnny Cash, as well as the ability to inject feeling into a couple of great songs.

However, they all practically disappear from notice as the man at the piano stage right twinkles with the most remarkable stage presence. Ben Goddard makes Jerry Lee Lewis into a fascinating egotist with real talent on the piano and Great Balls of Fire really got the audience fired up. Whenever he moves, let alone talks, you cannot look away, which is hard on his fellows.

Million Dollar Quartet inevitably draws comparisons with another Broadway show yet to cross the Atlantic. Memphis is infinitely better, with a great story line and original music. However, while it may be much more reconstituted concert than a musical, if the idea of seeing live versions of Blue Suede Shoes (Carl Perkins' song as he is keen to emphasise), Memories are Made of This and I Walk the Line delivered by good models of the originals sends shivers down the spine, head straight for the Noël Coward Theatre.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher