Noel Coward Theatre (London)
4th December 1956, the Sun Records Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley are together in one room, jamming away for hours on end – and all entirely by chance.
Million Dollar Quartet in the cosy Noel Coward theatre tells the story of the day four of the legends of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records inadvertently became the world’s first supergroup. Back in 1956, the sound engineer manning the studio during their impromptu play-and-sing-along had the sense to hit the record button and finally, in 1981, an album was released with 17 tracks.
A new edition of the recordings (now with 46 tracks in their correct order) was released in 2006 and, thanks to the unstoppable trend for jukebox musicals, Million Dollar Quartet hit Broadway and the West End.
The album is brilliant and so is hearing it live – every bit of music is recreated live by the actors and musicians – but unfortunately it can do without the plot or the extra dialogue. One and a half hours of solid rock and roll would blow the roof off the Noel Coward theatre, but the two-hours-long Million Dollar Quartet only jacks it up a few inches.
This is not to say there aren’t some sensational performances. Staple of primetime television Bill Ward holds the show together as Sam Phillips, proprietor and manager of Sun Records. At first I thought Michael Malarkey’s Elvis would provoke cringes from even the most devoted fans of The King, but his young, all-American Presley is believable and endearing. Matthew Empson on his West End debut as Jerry Lee Lewis is infectious – his piano playing includes the odd karate chop and flailing foot thrown in for good measure.
Director Eric Schaeffer’s staging is sometimes messy and, constricted by the studio surroundings, inevitably static. The nature of this beast also means that there are some pangs of A level theatre. Yet Schaeffer does create some beautiful moments – one being towards the end of the show (without giving too much away) when the quartet replicate the famous photograph of four superstars gathered round the piano.
Overall, there is nothing that will detract from the sheer musical talent of each and every performer. The bass player (Gez Gerrard) displays boundless enthusiasm throughout while the drummer (Adam Riley) is super smooth, never putting one toe out of line.
Clearly the best part of this show is the music – and there is a lot of it. Hearing it all performed live is hugely evocative of Phillips’ achievement in signing these artists and making them stars. Go firstly for the embarrassingly good performances and secondly for the famous announcement which has retained its ability to tingle spines: “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building”.