On December 4, 1956 at Sun Studios in Memphis, a very special jam session occurred. The ‘Father of Rock n’ Roll’ and studio owner Sam Phillips hosted four musicians who would become legends of their time - Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. This impromptu gathering of musical giants is the basis of the Broadway and West End hit Million Dollar Quartet which opened on Friday night at Auckland’s Civic Theatre.
The audience is thrust into the 1950′s as Blue Suede Shoes is bellowed out causing the instant effect of getting those toes a tappin’. The energy of the sound is immediate and I realised that this really was going to be a Rock n’ Roll show with all the instruments and vocals performed live and loud. Sam Phillips, played by Jason Donovan, follows this belter of an opening by beginning his narration of the extraordinary night that brought these young stars together into one small recording studio. Donovan’s southern accent was impeccable and he built the atmosphere and drama as the story played out. He is very much playing the grown up on this stage, the father figure and mentor to these rising talents.
Jerry Lee Lewis is played by Martin Kaye and he did so with glorious playful cheekiness. His boundless energy on piano and vocals depicted the ambition and friskiness that only a young and hungry musician can embody. All his song performances featured plenty of bravado and general showing off, even declaring at one point that his ‘fingers have brains’.
Matthew Wycliffe played a wiser character in Carl Perkins, who firmly wanted to stamp his place as the alpha in the pack, especially when it came to Lewis. His guitarmanship (if that is a word) was as brilliant to watch as it was to hear.
Robbie Durham brought Johnny Cash back to youth and nailed his country music southern drawl perfectly. His performance of Folsom Prison Blues delighted the audience in all its baritone glory.
Ross William Wild wiggled and gyrated as Elvis Presley most entertainingly (I swear his head wobbled more than my eight-week-old son’s). But, most impressive was his vocal impersonation that managed to catch both the King’s voice intonations and power.
To break up all this resonating testosterone there was one female cast member, Katie Ray, who played Mr Presley’s beau Dyanne. She performed two great lead vocal performances - Fever and I Hear You Knocking - as well as adding some wonderful harmonies to the full company pieces.
The playlist throughout is pretty crowd pleasing and is delivered masterfully, but it’s not until the end of the show that everyone gets a chance to get up and really have a boogie along to some classic Rock n’ Roll tuneage. Obviously, those of a certain generation may hold more attachment to these megastars and their impact on both culture and the musical landscape, but their legacy is such that I think all will find something to love and toe-tap along to in this show.
You can see Million Dollar Quartet at Auckland’s The Civic from 9 to 15 June and tickets are available here.
Reviewed by Ingrid Grenar.