Tuesday, 01 March 2011 00:02
Million Dollar Quartet, Noël Coward Theatre
Written by Joe Muggs
Michael Malarkey as an "easygoing" Elvis Tristram Kenton
As acting challenges go it borders on the foolhardy: impersonate not just in looks and mannerisms but in musical skill too some of the most truly iconic figures of the 20th century. And do it up close and personal with an audience who know the subjects' work inside out to boot. It seems almost impossible that a cast could manage to convincingly portray the (real) musical meeting of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins at Sam Phillips's Sun Studios in 1956, but Million Dollar Quartet has managed successful and continuing runs in Chicago and on Broadway, so they must be doing something right, mustn't they?
Well, to a degree. There's no denying that as a spectacle it is quite something to behold. The four main players' ability, singing and playing every song with only a rhythm section for back-up, to sound like their subject ranged from excellent to uncanny, and they weren't too shabby on the physical appearances either. Clearly casting this show – all bar one member were cast completely afresh in the transfer to London – must have been a long and rigorous process to say the very least. The performances mesh impressively too, not just a set of impersonations, but true ensemble work, with the musical numbers perfectly segued in and out of exposition and physical comedy.
'There was never any sense of the devil in Jerry Lee, no sense of the danger and raging fire'
And yet, and yet... while there is absolutely no danger of getting bored through the non-stop 100-minute performance, and quite a few moments of boggling accomplishment, it all too rarely provides the real thrills that something tapping into the mainline of rock'n'roll should be able to access. A key moment comes very early on with Ben Goddard's first solo song as Jerry Lee Lewis (pictured right): every tic, every flick of the curled fringe, every vamp and trick on the piano is there – it's a fantastically engaging simulacrum – but though we certainly get the sense of a belligerent young country boy wild with ambition, there is never any sense of the devil in Jerry Lee, no sense of the danger and raging fire that are visible in even the earliest available footage of the real thing.
Likewise Derek Hagan's Johnny Cash: certainly one of the best soundalikes I've ever heard, and physically not a bad resemblance – but oddly awkward in his stance, lacking the utter assurance that made The Man in Black as much as did his baritone. And rock musician Robert Britton Lyons as Carl Perkins, despite having originally created the role himself in Chicago, is very obviously not an actor: great in all the scenes involving musical interplay and fluent in his speech, but when it comes to individual expression he relies mainly on a repertoire of about six eyebrow movements.
Easily the best of the bunch, amazingly, is Michael Malarkey as Elvis (pictured with group, left): brushing away the memories of a million terrible impersonators, he homes in on Presley's easygoing charm, playing him with a lightness of touch that gives us one of the show's best moments. A flashback sequence in which Sam Phillips (a sparkily avuncular Bill Ward) recalls his first meeting with the young Presley suddenly turned electric when the enormity of what it meant to be hearing “That's All Right” performed for the first time became clear. Likewise towards the end when we see Phillips stand outside the studio with “Great Balls of Fire” being recorded inside, the sense that this is a real historical moment brings everything vividly to life for just a second.
And therein lies the problem with the show: although it might seem churlish to pick such an astoundingly executed spectacle up for not being transcendently great, it is a near impossibility not to be constantly reminded of the possibility of that greatness by what is being depicted on stage. No matter how brilliantly choreographed the action and charming the actors, they are always asking for comparison with some of the greatest or most epochal performances of all time. As a top-notch revue, as a series of genuinely great set pieces held together with just enough plot, pathos and historical accuracy to make it more than a simple jukebox show, Million Dollar Quartet is a major achievement, and it's a good night out. In theory it should be a great one – but achieving the necessary suspension of disbelief is a more difficult obstacle than you might expect
Million Dollar Quartet, Noël Coward Theatre, London
By Ian Shuttleworth
Published: March 1 2011 18:49 | Last updated: March 1 2011 18:49
On December 4 1956 in the Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee, Johnny Cash (just then making a name for himself), Carl Perkins (who had already had his greatest hit with his own song “Blue Suede Shoes”), Jerry Lee Lewis (newly signed) and Elvis Presley (who by this point was definitively Elvis) held a jam session. Tapes survive of 40-odd songs. This stage musical includes only a couple of dozen, and a mere three sung during that session: “Peace in the Valley”, “Down by the Riverside” and Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”.
There would, after all, simply be no audience for a show that brought these four talents together, even in surrogate form, only to have them faithfully tackle country and gospel numbers. Writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux opt for a jukebox musical. They even throw in a couple of numbers for Elvis’s girlfriend (who did not perform that day, and has moreover been renamed here).
This is far from the most perfunctory of compilation musicals; it is not simply a mock-concert in which the “acts” trot out their biggies. There is narrative: its stories of Cash and Perkins ending their Sun contracts take major liberties with chronology, but no more than having the Quartet belt out songs not written at the time. There is character interaction, especially between Perkins and Lewis.
Ben Goddard’s Lewis could not be calmed down by a truckload of tranquillisers, and he ably reproduces the Killer’s psychopathic piano-playing style (all the music in the show is played by those on stage). Robert Britton Lyons plays a mean guitar as Perkins, though his style sounds more like Link Wray. (Show me a sharecropper with a gold-top Gibson Les Paul guitar and I’ll show you a gentleman farmer.) Derek Hagen makes an efficient Johnny Cash, Michael Malarkey has the most invidious task as Elvis, and Bill Ward as producer and label owner Sam Phillips is a glorified master of ceremonies, quite unlike surviving footage of Phillips himself.
There are many worse jukebox shows around, and the legendary status of the original event gives this show a broad potential audience, which is just as well, since most of 1956’s teenagers are today’s septuagenarians.
Million Dollar Quartet doesn't throb with heart and soul
Smooth, not sultry: Michael Malarkey as Elvis Presley
By Henry Hitchings
1 Mar 2011
The success of Jersey Boys shows there's an appetite for musicals that are part jukebox extravaganza, part documentary - full of hit songs faithfully delivered, and spiced with humour and testosterone. Million Dollar Quartet, arriving in the West End after making a splash in America, is just such an exercise in upbeat nostalgia.
One day in December 1956, the studios of Sun Records in Memphis witnessed a remarkable convergence of talent, when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis combined for a jam session. That event is the inspiration for this energetic workout, conceived by Floyd Mutrux and brought to life with the help of Colin Escott.
In Eric Schaeffer's efficient production the hits come thick and fast: Great Balls of Fire, Hound Dog, I Walk the Line, Blue Suede Shoes. Presiding over matters is Sam Phillips (Bill Ward), the proprietor of Sun, whose commentary stitches the songs into a somewhat clunky narrative.
The music is recreated in an enjoyably vigorous style. The performances go beyond being impersonations, though of course they have to satisfy in that respect. Ben Goddard stands out as Lewis, with effortless technical skill, plain-spoken forwardness and brazen peculiarity.
Michael Malarkey's Elvis seems a bit understated - smooth without being sultry. Derek Hagen's Cash is credible, yet I wanted more of the real Cash's rich, rumbling pain in his interpretation. Robert Britton Lyons, the one survivor from Broadway, arguably has the hardest job as Perkins, now much less famous than the other three. But he pulls it off, playing a mean guitar.
While the ensemble work is vibrant, this is a show that doesn't exactly throb with heart and soul. When at one point we hear a crackly recording from the Fifties, it has a magnetic quality that the modern version never manages.
Despite the proficiency of the performances, there's a lack of visceral thrill here. Million Dollar Quartet is decent entertainment, yet fans of the music, even as they enjoy this account of it, are likely to find themselves hankering after their old 45s.
Million Dollar Quartet
Published Tuesday 1 March 2011 at 10:20 by Mark Shenton
Here’s a pop compilation concert show with a difference - it actually happened, sort of, on December 4, 1956. At the Memphis recording studios of Sun Records, four rock ‘n’ roll giants - Elvis Presley (who was originally on the label but had already decamped to RCA before becoming a movie star, too), Jerry Lee Lewis (who had just arrived on the scene), and Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash (both shown here about to defect to Columbia) - got together for an informal jamming session.
Million Dollar Quartet
Published Tuesday 1 March 2011 at 10:20 by Mark ShentonMillion Dollar Quartet seeks to recreate it, and imagines some of the conversations and interactions that might have occurred between the four men and their Svengali-like record producer Sam Phillips, with Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne - who spends most of the evening smiling sweetly - and an additional onstage bass player and drummer looking on.
All of which feels very authentic, passionate and compelling, except that it didn’t happen quite this way. Not even the playlist was the same, as over half of what they sang on the day were in fact gospel songs.
The creators of this show, originally conceived and directed by Floyd Mutrux, try to flummox us by effectively giving us a jukebox of some of their greatest hits instead, like Blue Suede Shoes (originally recorded by Perkins but then made more famous by Presley) and Great Balls of Fire (originally recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Studios nearly a year later).
There are also plenty of covers of other songs of the era, like Fever (not recorded by Elvis until 1960, but here recreated as a song for his girlfriend to sing) and the Dean Martin hit Memories Are Made of This (which was not recorded by Cash until 1996).
Nor is the chronology accurate on the facts. It wasn’t until two years later that Cash and Perkins left for Columbia. But if you can put aside the spurious history, the show succeeds triumphantly in making you feel the joy of the music-making. On this score, in every sense, there isn’t a slicker, more polished set of impressionists in town.
The quartet here of Ben Goddard (as Jerry Lee Lewis, thumping at the keyboards with real passion and panache), Robert Britton Lyons (recreating his Broadway performance as Carl Perkins), Derek Hagen (as Johnny Cash) and Michael Malarkey (as Elvis) fully live up to the show’s Million Dollar billing of them.
The West End may already be filled with shows that draw on old pop catalogues, from Abba and Queen to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as Dreamboats and Petticoats and Dirty Dancing, but the market for pop nostalgia is seemingly bottomless, and should be well satisfied by this latest accomplished entry.
The Hollywood Reporter
Million Dollar Quartet: Theater Review
3:58 PM 3/1/2011 by Ray Bennett
The Bottom Line
Broadway’s Sun Records hit rocks London’s West End.
Noel Coward Theatre, London (Through Oct. 1)
Robert Britton Lyons, Derek Hagen, Ben Goddard, Michael Malarkey, Bill Ward, Francesca Jackson
The production, directed by Eric Schaeffer and playing through Oct. 1 in London's Noel Coward Theatre, isn't so much a musical as it is a concert.
LONDON -- Million Dollar Quartet is a straight-forward jukebox musical, but since the music comes from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Records in the 1950s, it’s not your average jukebox.
Like Sunday in the Park With George, the stage show is based on a single image, and like that Stephen Sondheim classic, it attempts to flesh out how the picture came about. That’s where the comparison ends, as it’s not so much a musical as a concert.
In this case, it’s the famous photo of the four singers at a piano in Sam Phillips’ Memphis recording studio, and the book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux reveals something about what was going on in those heady days of rock ’n’ roll in its infancy — but not a whole lot.
There is, however, a whole lot of shaking going on as 23 numbers from that time are given full measure by director Eric Schaeffer, who has brought his creative team from Broadway. The show is as slick as Elvis’ hair.
American Robert Britton Lyons, who originated the role of Perkins on Broadway and has appeared in every production since, joins an otherwise British cast. He has more of the strut and presence of an early rock star than the others, although Derek Hagen as Cash, Ben Goddard as Lewis and Michael Malarkey are all terrific performers.
Malarkey more resembles Joaquin Phoenix as Cash in Walk the Line than Elvis. He’s a little too compact for the legendary performer, although he does catch Presley’s sneer in the right light, and his baritone is strong if not an echo of the original in numbers such as “That’s All Right, Mama,” “Peace in the Valley” and “Hound Dog.”
Hagen looks less like Cash than John C. Reilly playing Dewey Cox, but he has Cash’s way with a rhythm guitar, and his rich, deep voice is a match for the Man in Black on songs including “Sixteen Tons,” “I Walk the Line” and “Riders in the Sky.”
Goddard is a little chunky for the skinny Lewis, but he has his blond locks and powerful vocal delivery. He pounds out “Real Wild Child,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” with tremendous verve.
It’s Lyons, however, who parades the real stuff of rockabilly. Like Perkins, he’s lean with slicked-back hair and has a mean way with a lead guitar. He conveys the bitterness that Perkins had over Presley winning all the glory for “Blue Suede Shoes,” which he performs to kick off the show, but he also has the charm of a man whose compositions such as “Matchbox” and “Honey Don’t” became staples for later rock bands. The latter was not in the earlier productions but has been added to the West End show. The program makes a point of thanking Paul McCartney, who now owns the song.
Francesca Jackson is a welcome feminine presence as a girlfriend of Elvis, and she demonstrates genuine flare on “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking.” Gez Gerrard on double bass and Adam Riley on drums remain onstage throughout and give the music the correct propulsion.
Lewis and Perkins trade insults throughout the show, which makes a break for Bill Ward as Phillips, who tells what story there is of the four artists and Sun Records before they went on to fame and riches and he just got fabulously wealthy from radio stations and Holiday Inn stock.
The evening ends with the boys in gleaming jackets as the audience rises irresistibly to the beat of some mightily impressive and infectious rockabilly.
Broadway World Review
BWW Reviews: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, Noel Coward Theatre, Feb 28 2011
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; Posted: 06:03 PM - by Robert Gould
"Goodness gracious - great balls of fire! Not another jukebox musical!" That may well be what many people will be screaming on hearing of the opening of Million Dollar Quartet at London's Noel Coward Theatre. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this show as "yet another" anything. Even for a jukebox sceptic like me, it's a hugely entertaining show.
Inspired by an actual event on 4 December 1956 at Sun Records in Memphis, Million Dollar Quartet recreates the event masterminded by Sun Records' founder Sam Phillips when legendary stars Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis performed together for the only time in their careers. Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux's book examines the friendship, jealousies and divided loyalties of the stars in a workmanlike fashion which has some nice touches of humour. Eric Shaeffer's direction manages to hold everything together tightly and allows the songs to emerge naturally as "performance" numbers which - - unlike in many other jukebox shows - never seem forced. And the songs are all Rock'n Roll, Blues or Country classics - including "Blue Suede Shoes", "Hound Dog", "I Walk The Line", "Sixteen Tons", etc.
But what makes the show a real treat is the collection of top-drawer performances from the eight-strong cast of actors/singers/musicians. Gez Gerrard and Adam Riley are both consummate musicians in the supporting "band"; Bill Ward exudes charismatic charm as Sam Phillips; Francesca Jackson adds a touch of class as Elvis's girlfriend, Dyanne - delivering a haunting and sultry vocal of "Fever" and taking the roof off the house with "I Hear You Knocking"; Derek Hagen's Johnny Cash makes everyone in the theatre believe the real Mr. Cash is on the stage; Robert Britton Lyons (who created the role of Carl Perkins on Broadway) makes a sensational acting and singing West End debut; Michael Malarkey wears the crown of The King with total credibility and demonstrates he has the vocals to match his considerable acting talents. But even in this outstanding company, Ben Goddard succeeds in stealing the show with a highly energised, aptly off-the-wall performance as Jerry Lee Lewis which proves he not only possesses great skills as an actor but is also a truly amazing pianist and a genuine vocal powerhouse.
To answer the bottom line questions - is it high art? No. Is it great fun? Hell, yes! Does it look like a show worthy of being a West End hit? I would say it looks like a million dollars.