Million Dollar Quartet tells the true story of the legendary night in 1956, on which Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all found themselves at Sun Records, the label which launched all their careers. The entire show takes place on the same set, unusual for high-end musicals, but entirely suitable for this. The set does change with lighting, while “outdoor” scenes take place in the foreground, but it’s the music and performances that are the focus and the detailed design certainly makes us feel as if we’re there.
As is often the case in large scale touring shows, there’s a household name in the cast and here it’s Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet fame, playing Sun Records owner and manager, Sam Phillips. You may have a favourite rock and roll star, but be surprised to find it’s not the same one in this show. Arguably Presley or Cash are likely to be the biggest draws, but this stage show has Jerry Lee Lewis as the big crowd pleaser. This has a lot to do with the incredible performance of Martin Kaye, who plays him with incredible levels of agility – his arms and legs move in ways that seem to defy gravity and his piano playing is truly remarkable. It’s also a perfectly pitched, very funny characterisation of the (at that time) underdog of the four.
Robbie Durham is likable and sounds uncannily like Cash, with his richly mature bass notes and country vibe and Matthew Wycliffe is entertaining and sympathetic as Perkins, emotive in retelling his loss of Blue Suede Shoes notoriety to Elvis (he missed his chance to perform it live on TV due to a car accident and so Elvis got in first, singing it on the Ed Sullivan show). The disappointment of the piece is the casting of Presley, who although played admirably by Rhys Whitfield, doesn’t have quite the right energy or physicality and doesn’t exude the Elvis charisma needed to be believable as the star. A rendition of Peace in the Valley in particular proves Whitfield a beautiful singer able to emulate Presley’s tone, but as we spend more time looking at him on stage than hearing his voice, the package should be more convincing.
We learn lots of interesting titbits about the various characters and music history along the way and the live music and rocking tunes are superb – by the end it’s hard not to be out of your seat dancing. There’s a joy about this production, a celebration of dearly loved legends at a pivotal period in all their lives. And the moment in the show where the famous shot of all four gathered around the piano on that night is projected on a gauze, while the scene recreated by the actors frozen in the background on stage, is actually quite moving and full of warmth. If you dig this era of music this foot-stomping, fun night out will be right up your street.
Million Dollar Quartet runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until 28th October.