Million Dollar Quartet, Noel Coward Theatre, London
Thursday 03 March 2011
On 4 December 1956 the ultimate jam session took place. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis gathered at the Sun studio of their mentor Sam Phillips to make music and conversation. What is remarkable is that there haven't been innumerable plays, films and TV documentaries about this seminal moment in pop history.
The mixture of personalities alone was combustible: Elvis had departed Sun and had enjoyed his first year of music and film superstardom, Cash was torn between pop and gospel, Perkins had barely suppressed resentment that his song "Blue Suede Shoes" was more associated with Presley than with him, Jerry Lee Lewis, later to have a huge hit with "Great Balls of Fire", was a ball of unpredictable energy, rumoured to be a bigamist at 21. Phillips was having to come to terms with his boys leaving him.
All credit then to the writers of this show for seeing the dramatic potential in this event. Only Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive, and he joined a curtain call when the show played in America for another impromptu jam. Ben Goddard's portrayal of him is a highlight of the evening, a bundle of aggression, sexual and otherwise.
All the quartet have great voices doing personable impressions of the real thing, and it's a joy to hear numbers like "Hound Dog", "I Walk the Line" and the rest. It's frustrating though that this show could and should have been better. The enigmatic character of Phillips is barely explored at all, Elvis's distress at losing his roots and becoming a global commodity is nibbled at but not really addressed. The resentments and frustrations of Cash, Perkins and Jerry Lee are also brought up but quickly dropped in the rush to get to the next number.
Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable, feelgood musical with a soundtrack to die for.
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