It’s a story that is so star-studded, it’s hard to fathom that it actually happened. But, Million Dollar Quartet is indeed the true story of December 4, 1956, the night that brought together rock ‘n’ roll icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis for one of the most famous jam sessions of all time. It would also be the only time all four legends played together.
The meeting takes place at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, the studio of producer Sam Phillips (Jason Donovan). Three of his old protégés, Perkins (Matt Wycliffe), Cash (Robbie Durham), Presley (Ross William Wild) and new boy Lewis (an electrifying Ashley Carruthers) come together for what would become a jam session to go down in music history. The structure of MDQ is more that of Jersey Boys than a traditional musical; the songs are there less to further the story and more to highlight just how iconic the singers’ back catalogues are. And whilst the story is an epic one in idea, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s book doesn’t delve into the characters’ (Phillips, in particular) back stories as much as I would have liked.
In one scene, an argument over who owns Blue Suede Shoes (Perkins originally recorded it but Elvis took it to the top of the charts and had his shining moment performing it on The Ed Sullivan Show) opens up an old wound for the former, who is jealous of his old label mate’s catastrophic success in music and Hollywood. However, it’s hard to imagine a stereotypical 1950s, ex-army man like Cash pandering to anyone, let alone chasing after them to see if they were OK after a fall out. The Man in Black: a pacifier? Surely not?
Regardless of qualms with the book, the boys in the band more than make up for any discrepancies with musicianship.
No stranger to theatre, having previously performed in shows such as Joseph and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Donovan is ironically in one of the only non-singing roles of the show. However, he still manages to hold court and is the glue that holds the show together as Phillips. He lends an everyman demeanour to the legendary producer, allowing him to show not only the pleasant side of the character but hurt and upset, the latter especially when confronted with the revelation that Cash is leaving the label for pastures new.
Wycliffe is great as the frustrated Perkins, as is Wild as an emotionally immature Presley, clearly out of his depth with the mammoth fame he is achieving. Wild’s Presley is particularly stunning on That’s All Right. I didn’t think I was much of a Johnny Cash fan until I heard Durham’s version of his songs. His Arkansas accent is spot on and near-perfect versions of Folsom Prison Blues and Walk the Line do not fail to impress.
Carruthers is nothing short of thrilling in the role of Lewis. Not only are his piano skills mesmerising but he flawlessly plays the fool in a room full of cool guys. Bordering on slapstick, his comedic timing is set to precision and lines like, “You are so beautiful – you remind me of my cousin!” and his intro of “Jerry Lee Lewis, Ferriday, Louisiana” are great ammunition for his country bumpkin portrayal.
Katie Ray brings some much-needed femininity to the fray as the only girl in the boys club, Dyanne. She’s charismatic and flirtatious as Elvis’ flavour of the month and her big solo number, Fever, is delivered whilst bathed in red light, smoke rising behind her like the recording studio has become a jazz club, as she hops from purring sex kitten to powerhouse diva with ease. The leading players are backed skilfully by Ben Cullingforth on drums and James Swinnerton on bass.
The leads, including Ray, sing together on Down By the Riverside to provide one of the most beautifully understated moments of the show.
The show finishes with a medley of some of the boys’ biggest hits, with massive numbers like Great Balls of Fire, Walk the Line and Hound Dog giving them the chance to go full-out as show men (and woman). With a supremely talented cast, and a score full of million dollar hits, it’s like a lottery win for rock ‘n’ roll fans – make sure you’ve got your ticket.
Million Dollar Quartet is touring the UK until November 4, 2017. For more info and for tickets, click here