The primary purpose of theatre is to entertain, and Million Dollar Quartet certainly achieves this. The show retells the events of one night in December 1956, when Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis all got together for an impromptu jam session at Sun Records. Owner Sam Phillips had been responsible for launching the careers of these four musicians, but as they hit the big time he struggled to keep them all on his label, with the likes of RCA and Columbia signing Presley, Cash, and Perkins.
Million Dollar Quartet somehow manages to spin an entire show out of what is essentially a rather thin plot, and it relies mostly on monologues delivered to the audience from Phillips, played by Jason Donovan, to move the show along. Perhaps, with any other cast, and under any other direction, the show would not be so good, but last night’s performance at the Bristol Hippodrome was absolutely wonderful.
The actors all play their own instruments and sing live. There’s a lot of songs packed into the show, which is great, because the cast are all so good at performing that it never seems like a drag. Their depictions of the Rock ‘n’ Roll idols are accurate, but all the actors have also put their own stamp on proceedings. Matt Wycliffe as Perkins has a voice that you’ll want to hear over and over again, as well as a phenomenal talent on the guitar, while Robbie Durham’s Johnny Cash gives you chills. Playing the role of Elvis Presley seems an almost unenviable task, but Ross William Wild nails it; the first few times we hear him sing we notice that raw soulfulness just waiting to break free, and it really comes to the fore when he performs “That’s Alright Momma.” It is, perhaps, Martin Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis who really steals the show. Not only is he an incredible piano player, but he also gave a wonderfully humorous turn as the eager young man waiting for his big break.
As for Donovan, while initially disappointed to learn he doesn’t sing in the show, I ended up completely captivated by his performance. Theatre is where Donovan belongs; this is a man who consistently delivers high quality and very watchable performances, and Million Dollar Quartet is no different. Towards the end of the show, when it becomes apparent that he’s fighting a losing battle to keep his artists, the pain Sam Phillips is feeling really comes across. The audience, having spent the evening enjoying some of the finest Rock ‘n’ Roll, falls completely silent, rooting for this man who has invested so much in the careers of these young men. Donovan delivers the emotional punch this show needs, driving the action, and it’s the perfect offset to the upbeat music that just keeps coming.
Million Dollar Quartet is not the most profound piece of theatre you’ll ever see, but it doesn’t try to be. It is, however, thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, and you’ll be on your feet singing along by the time the long but immensely satisfying curtain call comes.