Live Review: The Million Dollar Quartet

I left work early on Friday afternoon (sorry Neil, meant to tell you that) to catch the 5.32 up to London’s West End, one of the most happening places in the world. There was a quick stop in an overly heated Café Rouge for a pre show dinner served by supposedly French people and then it was time to make our way to the Noel Coward Theatre.

I have fond memories of this venue – the last thing I saw here was none other than the funniest show I have ever seen; Avenue Q. If you haven’t seen it, well, you’re too late as it is not on anymore and you missed your chance. Unlucky.

So, for those of you who don’t know what the Million Dollar Quartet is, the show refers to the night that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were brought together by Sun Records founder Sam Phillips for an impromptu, legendary music-making session at his Memphis Studio.

The date was the 4th December 1956, Elvis’ recording contract had recently been sold to RCA in order to pay off debts and continue the growth of Sun Records. The newest signing, a young and immature Jerry Lee Lewis was just starting out, and Carl Perkins was desperately searching for a follow up hit after his success with Blue Suede Shoes.

The cast consisted of the quartet, Sam Phillips and Elvis’ then girlfriend Dyanne. There were virtually no moments when everyone was not on stage, due to the small cast size, so the actors had few chances to relax in a dressing room. I suspect the interval was a welcome break.

Let me start by saying that the musicianship of these four guys, together with the house band consisting of double bass and drums on stage was nothing short of fantastic. They were tighter than a nun’s wimple. Considering that everything was absolutely live, the energy coming out of the quartet was electric, especially from young Jerry who spent his two hours on stage smashing his piano to bits every way imaginable, and was displaying well earned plasters across his fingers.

Although I am not in a great position to judge, I am told that the mannerisms of each quartet member was pulled off with great skill; some serious homework has obviously been done. I can only vouch for Jerry Lee Lewis (he is, after all right here on Gigseen), who played with the mic in between his legs, as well as his shall we say, aggressive, playing techniques and mischievous personality.

The show is essentially a 2-hour concert; a jukebox musical if you will. There is little in the way of serious acting and the show seldom explores the individual stories of each character, the longest break in the continuous stream of songs was for Johnny and Carl to tell Sam Phillips that they had already signed a deal with Columbia – a sombre mood which was duly broken by Jerry Lee Lewis breaking out with Great Balls of Fire. It felt like the show was always rushing though the sketchy dialogue to get to the next hit song, and if you were to attend in the hope of learning about the history of Sun Records, it’s founder Sam Phillips and the success of early rock and roll records then you would be hugely disappointed. I would suggest reading the programme at the interval so you didn’t leave completely down hearted.

There are plenty of this type of show around at the moment, which must suggest that a London audience enjoys an overly produced glitzy array of songs-we-all-know, based around a makeshift storyline; We Will Rock You perhaps being the most successful example. I cringe at the news that Shrek the Musical has opened in London, but take solace in the success of Wicked!, one of the last shows of it’s kind and have no problem in telling people I have seen it on five occasions.

The most obvious comparison is to Jersey Boys, telling the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a show which I wasn’t expecting to enjoy as much as I did. The balance between sing-a-long with serious storytelling was perfect. The show had substance, a love interest and background; all of which Million Dollar Quartet lacked.

But please don’t get me wrong - this show was great. It really was. Although its audience is potentially restricted to people of a certain age and a particular music style, anyone could enjoy this. I defy anyone to leave the auditorium not feeling revitalised, and seeing as my ticket was free, (Christmas present) I certainly did.