On December 4th 1956, four musicians gathered for a recording at Sun Records in Memphis. This gathering has gone down in music history as one of the greatest jam sessions of all time. It has even become the subject of a smash hit musical called Million Dollar Quartet. For one million dollars, they must be pretty special, I hear you cry. Well, these four musicians were no less than Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. Now that is some roll call.
Considering the people involved here, trying to recreate this legendary night is no small feat. Yet Million Dollar Quartet manages to do so to a large extent. Firstly, its setting immediately transports you to 1950s America. With its rustic walls, framed vinyls and upright piano, the recording studio of Sam Philips (Jason Donovan) has a distinct Wild West feel. The intimate setting feels very much like a saloon bar. The depth of colour, helped by some effective lighting, only adds to this sense of place.
Secondly, the cast do an impressive job in bringing these iconic individuals to life. Ross William Wild delivers the necessary swagger and suavity of Elvis, strutting across the stage in fine fashion. Robbie Durham brings a quiet confidence to the role of Johnny Cash. His physical demeanour appears spot on, even if the voice doesn’t quite hit the depths of that distinct baritone sound. Matt Wycliffe plays the lesser-known of the quartet, bringing a certain vulnerability to the role of Carl Perkins. As a character, Perkins seems to be of a defensive mind. He represents the established star who is threatened by the emergence of the newcomer. In this case, the new kid on the block is Jerry-Lee Lewis. And judging by the performance of Ashley Carruthers, who plays the antagonistic wild child, he has every need to feel under threat. Carruthers gives a blistering performance. The ultra-high tempo with which he plays the piano – not hitting a single bum note – leaves you in awe. There is a genuine expectation that smoke will start rising from his fingers such is the speed and strength with which he hits the keys. He captures the great musical prowess of Lewis with seeming ease, and his embodiment of “The Killer” extends seamlessly into the conversational elements of the script. There is a great cockiness in Carruthers’ performance which makes the exchanges with Wycliffe’s Perkins very humorous. These two would have certainly ended up at each other’s throats if it wasn’t for the father-figure of Sam Philips. Donavan brings a confident air to the role of the record producer, acting as storyteller. In doing so, he doesn’t dominate the stage but, when he does speak, he commands the attention of the audience. There is something about him that elicits a great deal of empathy and respect. The five of them together are simply brilliant. They appear to have great chemistry, and this shines through in both their music and dialogue.
For all the praise that is deservedly heaped on these gentlemen, one of the musical highlights for me actually came from the sole female in the show, Katie Ray. Playing Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne, Ray delivers a stunning version of Fever. Her powerful vocals are pitch perfect, spine-tinglingly so. Carruthers’ “improvisation” on piano only adds value to the spontaneous feel of the song. The red backdrop and animated spotlight towards the end are especially effective in drawing out the cabaret feel of the number. She holds her own in this testosterone-fuelled studio. It certainly gives the boys something to think about.
Writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have taken what seems like a pretty thin concept and managed to create a hugely entertaining show. It would have been interesting if these co-authors had fleshed out the early emergence of these musical stars in greater detail. As it is, they only touch on their backstories. In spite of this, Million Dollar Quartet remains a tremendously enjoyable show.
(Million Dollar Quartet is currently embarking on a nationwide UK tour)