‘Million Dollar Quartet’

I  like the idea of taking inspiration from a photo, or a scrap of information; to use a snippet as a launching off point from which to create a show or a story.

How often do writers speak about having had an image in their heads that led them into writing a novel to find out what led up to that moment or what came after it?

I suppose that is what I had in mind when I went to see ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ last week.  There was this possibly mythical evening in 1956 when four of the great early rock n roll stars (Jonny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley)  ‘discovered’ by Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis all came together.

There’s black and white photo of them grouped around a piano, and a bit of scratchy recording of them singing spirituals, the only songs they all had in common, to prove that a meeting did take place, but only they know what else happened that evening.

It’s an interesting premise for a show: they share the music, the success from poor beginnings, the excess and the excitement of being in at the start of something that none of them knew the size of; there are conflicts and narratives aplenty to explore.

Er, no.

This is a collection of songs performed by actors who look a bit like, and sound reasonably close to, each of the four members of the mythical quartet.

The story to the extent that one is attempted is that they all happen to be at the Sun studio one evening; Elvis had already moved to RCA, and Cash is about to go to Capitol.  Lewis is the new upstart, and Perkins is jealous of Elvis’s success.  They show up, they say a few lines of dialogue and then they get down to the business of singing the familiar songs.

That’s not to say it’s not good fun.  Approached as a very energetic, musically talented tribute band show it satisfies as a foot tapping, hand clapping night out.  But without the familiarity of the old songs, there would be nothing to see.

The actors play all the music themselves, with support from a bassist and drummer.  While they are all quite clearly musically talented, only Ben Goddard really injected any sense of characterisation into his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis

The show is relatively short, yet still included an interval, the need for which must be more to do with the theatre necessity to sell drinks and ice creams rather than the comfort of the audience.  The show started at 8pm, and the first curtain call was at 9:50.  This was followed a twenty minute ‘encore’; and only then did the cast don the sparkly jackets so prominently featured in all the publicity material.

Taken as a jukebox show, it satisfies, but don’t expect to learn anything new.

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