tue 04/08/2020

Million Dollar Quartet, Noël Coward Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Million Dollar Quartet, Noël Coward Theatre

Million Dollar Quartet, Noël Coward Theatre

Impersonators of Elvis et al provide a good but not a great night out

Well, to a degree. There's no denying that as a spectacle it is quite something to behold. The four main players' ability, singing and playing every song with only a rhythm section for back-up, to sound like their subject ranged from excellent to uncanny, and they weren't too shabby on the physical appearances either. Clearly casting this show – all bar one member were cast completely afresh in the transfer to London – must have been a long and rigorous process to say the very least. The performances mesh impressively too, not just a set of impersonations, but true ensemble work, with the musical numbers perfectly segued in and out of exposition and physical comedy.

Jerry_LeeAnd yet, and yet... while there is absolutely no danger of getting bored through the non-stop 100-minute performance, and quite a few moments of boggling accomplishment, it all too rarely provides the real thrills that something tapping into the mainline of rock'n'roll should be able to access. A key moment comes very early on with Ben Goddard's first solo song as Jerry Lee Lewis (pictured right): every tic, every flick of the curled fringe, every vamp and trick on the piano is there – it's a fantastically engaging simulacrum – but though we certainly get the sense of a belligerent young country boy wild with ambition, there is never any sense of the devil in Jerry Lee, no sense of the danger and raging fire that are visible in even the earliest available footage of the real thing.

Likewise Derek Hagan's Johnny Cash: certainly one of the best soundalikes I've ever heard, and physically not a bad resemblance – but oddly awkward in his stance, lacking the utter assurance that made The Man in Black as much as did his baritone. And rock musician Robert Britton Lyons as Carl Perkins, despite having originally created the role himself in Chicago, is very obviously not an actor: great in all the scenes involving musical interplay and fluent in his speech, but when it comes to individual expression he relies mainly on a repertoire of about six eyebrow movements.

MDQ_L-R_Ben_Goddard_Jerry_Lee_Lewis_Robert_Britton_Lyons_Carl_Perkins_Derek_Hagen_Johnny_Cash_Michael_Malarkey_seated_Elvis_Presley._Credit-_Helen_MaybanksEasily the best of the bunch, amazingly, is Michael Malarkey as Elvis (pictured with group, left): brushing away the memories of a million terrible impersonators, he homes in on Presley's easygoing charm, playing him with a lightness of touch that gives us one of the show's best moments. A flashback sequence in which Sam Phillips (a sparkily avuncular Bill Ward) recalls his first meeting with the young Presley suddenly turned electric when the enormity of what it meant to be hearing “That's All Right” performed for the first time became clear. Likewise towards the end when we see Phillips stand outside the studio with “Great Balls of Fire” being recorded inside, the sense that this is a real historical moment brings everything vividly to life for just a second.

And therein lies the problem with the show: although it might seem churlish to pick such an astoundingly executed spectacle up for not being transcendently great, it is a near impossibility not to be constantly reminded of the possibility of that greatness by what is being depicted on stage. No matter how brilliantly choreographed the action and charming the actors, they are always asking for comparison with some of the greatest or most epochal performances of all time. As a top-notch revue, as a series of genuinely great set pieces held together with just enough plot, pathos and historical accuracy to make it more than a simple jukebox show, Million Dollar Quartet is a major achievement, and it's a good night out. In theory it should be a great one – but achieving the necessary suspension of disbelief is a more difficult obstacle than you might expect.

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