Million Dollar Quartet

at Festival Theatre

* * * - -

Four young rockers on the rise bring it on home

Image of Million Dollar Quartet

On 4 December 1956, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley came together for a one and only jamming session in Sam Phillips’s pioneering Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. The show opens with Blue Suede Shoes, the song Perkins first sang but was a hit for Presley and heralded in rock ‘n’ roll.

Phillips was the visionary record producer and hitmaker, here played by a non-singing Jason Donovan whose job it is to set the scene and explain who’s who. Whether this natter is required is debatable. Hearing genuine old time rock played live is a great reminder of its raw power. Later, it had its edges rounded by the big record companies, and it’s the record companies that form an unseen pivot in the story. Phillips’s small operation discovered and nurtured new talent but couldn’t compete with the behemoths like RCA and Columbia which offered lucrative contracts, record deals, TV exposure and big money. What poor country boy with a golden voice could say no?

This is an excellent, professional and slick production. The accents are good and the playing exemplary. There’s plenty of harmony but it needs more heart. The book (Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux) turns sad and funny. Says Lewis to Cash: ‘my momma loves Folsom Prison Blues – it reminds her of my poppa.’ There’s much sparring between Perkins and Lewis and Elvis’s sudden fame and riches set friendships askew. Early rockers had a passion for this groundbreaking music that turned-on the kids and shocked their elders. Here it’s performed with great energy. But although everyone perfectly hits their mark, that great passion and rawness doesn’t always communicate itself over the footlights.

The testosterone-heavy cast is universally on the ball but it’s Robbie Durham‘s take on Johnny Cash that shines through and raises the hairs on the backs of necks. But there’s still something rather stiff in this jamming session. The guys need to loosen up. Maybe director Ian Talbot should take advice from the rockers’ most famous relative: Uncle Jack Daniels.