Million Dollar Quartet

Published February 28, 2011

A little piece of rock ‘n’ roll history inspired this new musical about a jam session between four great musicians. But really, it is just an excuse to play some cracking tunes live on stage.

It was on the 4 December 1956 that Sun Records boss Sam Phillips recorded an impromptu jam session between Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. It was to be the only time they all played together. Million Dollar Quartet – named after a newspaper headline at the time – creates a 90-minute show out of this significant event, using the music they played on the day as its superlative soundtrack.

Given that music includes hits Blue Suede Shoes, Walk The Line, Down By The Riverside and That’s All Right, it is clear that Million Dollar Quartet is on to a good thing. From the opening number the audience – mainly of the age who appreciated the original recordings – gets into its foot-tapping, head-nodding stride.

It would be hard not to. Playing live on stage, the talented lead foursome – Robert Britton Lyons, Derek Hagen, Ben Goddard and Michael Malarkey – take on the mantle of their famous alter-egos and perform their music with vigour. Stopping short of impersonations, their performances nevertheless include enough hints of the men themselves to be recognisable: Hagen reaches the vocal depths of Cash, Malarkey captures the strutting stance of Presley while Goddard is particularly impressive as Lewis, whose furious piano playing matches the hyperactive, child-like enthusiasm of his personality. 

The show works best when the music is being played. Though it tries to fashion a storyline out of the context of the jam session – Bill Ward’s weather-beaten Phillips narrates the background to how the foursome arrived in his studio – at times this seems an unnecessary distraction from the music. Nevertheless, the dialogue does provide some interesting insights, notably Perkins’s envy at Presley’s successful cover version of his song Blue Suede Shoes – understandable, given most people assume Presley wrote it – and the influence Phillips had on all their careers.

Also present at the jam session was a girlfriend of Presley’s, thought now to be Marilyn Evans but depicted in the musical as a fictitious character, Dyanne. With a couple of numbers to sing Francesca Jackson proves her vocal finesse, but at times the character’s presence seems superfluous.

If the show needs a reminder of where its focus should lie it need only look to the curtain call, when things really come alive. With the storyline dispatched, the quartet returns to the stage in sequin-clad jackets to perform several numbers in quick succession, including Lewis’s most famous song Great Balls Of Fire and Presley’s Hound Dog. The foot-tapping turns into all-out dancing. In the end, the music is the thing.