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Martin Kaye flying high a Jerry Lee Lewis. Pictures: Darren Bell

Million Dollar Quartet

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

WHEN the cast are having a ball on stage it soon becomes infectious and right from the off, with Blue Suede Shoes, feet are tapping, memories stirring and smiles widening as the audience join in the party.

Not that this is just another jukebox musical, there is a real story being told between the songs, a story about a moment of musical history.

Anyone with an interest in rock ‘n’ roll will have heard of Sun Records, if only because it launched Elvis on his career. Sam Phillips might be less well known butjason donovan he was the man who started a recording studio in 1950 in Memphis, Tennessee, which became Sun Records two years later, an independent label which never got much beyond a one-man band - Phillips and a recording engineer - yet Phillips gave a start to artists as diverse as B B King, Howlin’ Wolf and Roy Orbison and is regarded as the father of rock 'n' roll..

On December 4, 1956, Elvis, who had been sold to RCA in a deal that saved Sun records financially, was visiting the studio while Carl Perkins was recording a new song, Matchbox.

Phillips wanted his new discovery, Jerry Lee Lewis to play piano on the record. Johnny Cash, another Sun artist came in and engineer Jack Clement left the tape running as the four started jamming.

Jason Donovan as Sam Phillips

The session was later released as an album, then with more tracks discovered, as a CD of The Million Dollar Quartet – the basis of this musical.

Jason Donovan is Sam Phillips who also acts as the narrator.

Director Ian Talbot had a moment of genius by have everyone freeze and lights dim each time the genial Phillips relates the tale of that day and the stories of the stars in his studio as he sets the scene, it is almost as if we are looking into Sam’s mind, reliving his memories.

For Donovan fans, he doesn’t sing, but he is a fine actor and gives Phillips a gravitas that makes you believe he really could turn rough country boys into stars.

And he hardly needs to sing with such talent on show with all the music played live on stage. What you see is what you hear.

Martin Kaye as rock ‘n’ roll’s first wildman Jerry Lee Lewis can make a piano talk . . . and probably beg for mercy as well. He is funny and makes his character likeable in an irritating sort of way and, boy, is he a magician of the keyboard. Worth the price of admission on his own.

Birmingham’s Matt Wycliffe modestly says he is really a pianist and only really learned to play guitar when he landed the West End roll of Buddy Holly. And learn it he did. A former member of Birmingham’s Stage2 Youth Theatre, he plays guitar as if he was born to it. He impresses as Carl Perkins showing a serious side with a rough edge. It seems the former share cropper did not get on that well with Jerry Lee Lewis, a larger than life character whose light had no chance of being hidden under a bushel. He also had his issues with Elvis, particularly over Perkins’ song Blue Suede matt wycliffeShoes which Elvis had sung on the Ed Sullivan show on TV, making it appear to be his song.

You feel there is a frustration and anger lurking not far beneath the surface in Perkins.

As Johnny Cash we have the rich baritone of Robbie Durham and discover that Cash was more interested in religion than rock. Cash was to leave Sun because he wanted to record Gospel music and Durham makes his obvious dilemma about telling Sam, his mentor, that he was leaving seem a real torment.

Matt Wycliffe as Carl Perkins

Elvis is the returnee, the prodigal son, played with a confident air, and suggestive hips - cue curl of lip and uttering of ah ha - by Ross William Wild. Elvis has already made it and is a national star, perhaps the reason Perkins is also figuring on leaving, wanting something bigger than Sun could offer.

Elvis brings along girlfriend Dyanne, played by Katie Ray, who weighs in with a couple of numbers, including a jazzy Fever.

The set from David Farley is a recording studio, 1950’s style, with reel to reel tapes and analogue decks – even the guitars and amps are the same make and model as those played by the four artists, except in 1956 of course they would have had yards of guitar leads trailing over the floor rather than the somewhat less authentic wireless systems used in the show.

You get 23 numbers for your money but apart from an up on your feet finale the songs are relevant and advance the story and are not just shoehorned in to up the song count. What you have is an interesting tale with music from gifted musicians and, for those of a certain age, a healthy helping of nostalgia. It’s fun and just wonderful, feel-good entertainment that will have you smiling and singing songs to yourself all the way home. To 29-10-16

Roger Clarke

23-10-16

Jason Donovan and Matt Wycliffe talks about their roles 

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