Million Dollar Quartet – Civic Theatre June 9, 2017

Million Dollar Quartet, the Tony-nominated musical based on an impromptu jam session at Sun Studios in 1956 between Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, opened its seven-day run at Auckland’s Civic Theatre last night.

Basing a musical around a studio jam session that produced little music of note, might seem like a flimsy foundation for a Broadway musical, but the star power of the participants, along with their iconic songs gave writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux enough solid material to hang a story on.

Speaking of star power, the biggest name in this production is Jason Donovan, who plays Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. As Phillips, Donovan has the unenviable task of acting as narrator to the play while the rest of the cast get to perform rock and roll standards like Blue Suede Shoes, Great Ball Of Fire and Hound Dog.

Anything involving Elvis Presley has the potential to be filled with unflinching nostalgia, untested myth and a huge amount of cheese. Fortunately, this production manages to avoid all three.

Not to say that Million Dollar Quartet is completely based in fact. Yes, the four rockers did get together for a jam after a Carl Perkins session on December 4, 1956 (there is a photo and audio tape as proof), but most of the story line…based around Phillips signing Johnny Cash to an extended contract…happened at other times.

But, hey, this isn’t a documentary and anyone who faults this production for historical inaccuracies is missing the point. Ultimately what Million Dollar Quartet sets out to do is to celebrate Sam Phillips’ dedication to his pioneering record label, and the music itself. And it succeeds at that handily.

Donovan does a fine job of portraying Phillips as a man torn between selling out to RCA, by working as a consultant in NYC, or staying home and continuing to run his own label.

But the real stars are the four actors/musicians who play Perkins, Presley, Lewis and Cash. Ross William Wild plays Elvis, Matthew Wycliffe is Perkins, Robbie Durham is the future man in black and Martin Kaye is The Killer.

The cast/band is augmented by Ben Cullingworth on double bass, James Swinnerton on drums and Katie Ray who plays Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne, who also gets a chance to sing a few tunes.

Interestingly, although Elvis was the most prominent performer during the actual session, here he seems to take a back seat to the other three. Wild’s Elvis is probably the most unconvincing of the four. Wycliffe’s stellar rockabilly guitar playing makes his Carl Perkins shine. But its Durham and Kaye as Cash and Lewis who really steal the show.

Robbie Durham manages to inhabit the spirit of the young Johnny Cash both with his voice and his presence. And Martin Kaye clearly has a ball playing the precocious upstart Jerry Lee Lewis, banging away on his piano like a man possessed.

The song selection is spot on….plenty of Sun classics along with a few by the likes of contemporaries such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard…even Dean Martin.

The musical delivers some much-needed emotional heft in the second half as Phillips learns that one or more of his stars may be leaving the nest.

But just when things threaten to get too heavy, the band breaks into another rock and roll classic. By the end, it does feel like a legitimate jam session as each of the stars takes one more turn in the spotlight.

As the show finished with Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, audience members were literally dancing in the aisles. For a brief moment is was 1956 all over again.

Marty Duda

Click here for tickets and info to see Million Dollar Quartet.