Great Balls of Fire at the Cambridge Theatre

Great Balls of Fire, a biomusical about the life of Jerry Lee Lewis, comes rock'n'rolling into town on the back of hits like Buddy, Elvis - the Musical, Smokey Joe's Cafe and the recent 4 Steps to Heaven. Which begs the question, are audiences in danger of overdosing on fifties nostalgia?

Well, yes. But they're more at risk from being swamped by formulaic, clap-happy pap, of which Great Balls is just another example. You know the score: a two-hour trawl through the back catalogue of some faded pop star, with a sanitised, cliché-ridden biography thrown in.

This starts with the usual 'rock star on the way up' stuff: promising pianist Lee Lewis (Billy Geraghty) escapes from Bible-belt hick town, where rock 'n' roll is frowned on as 'the devil's music', with Dad Elmo's (Albie Woodington) encouragement. He hits Memphis, catches the eye of legendary Sun Records boss, Sam Phillips (Patrick Pearson), and quicker than you can swivel your hips, cuts chart-toppers like 'Whole Lotta Shakin'', 'High School Confidential', 'Breathless' and 'Great Balls of Fire'.

The dream sours for the Louisiana Fireball, though, when he weds 13 year-old Myra (Heather-Jay Jones), daughter of his bass player. The press pick up on this during a trip to Blighty, his popularity plummets, and he resorts thereafter to playing sleazy clubs and bars.

One of my main gripes is that there's scant evidence of Lee Lewis's famed off-stage hell-raising. Writers Todd Ristau and Richard Cameron have sought to portray him less as the wild man of rock and more as a sort of egocentric, pig-headed, hillbilly who's fond of a tipple.

It's only when Lee Lewis assaults the ivories that the feral personality really comes across. Here Geraghty, complete with daft blonde rug, shows he can belt out the songs and simultaneously perform a credible impersonation of Lee Lewis's incendiary routine, as he furiously finger jabs, elbows and stomps the piano keys.

Eddie Burton as The Killer's cousin and conscience, Jimmy Lee Swaggart, Amelda Brown as his deeply religious mother, and Kim Bretton as little sis Linda Gail, lend two-dimensional support. The last, becomes Lee Lewis's backing singer, and assists in his comeback concert at Nashville.

This provides Simon Usher's production with a reasonably upbeat finale, but the feeling is that Great Balls functions more as a half-decent retro rock gig, than a musical.

Richard Forrest


Note: The following review dates for the musical's run at the Birmingham Hippodrome in August/September 1999.

Given the glut of tribute and compilation shows that have rocked, rolled and sometimes simply trickled in and out of theatres since Buddy opened 10 years ago, it was inevitable that Jerry Lee Lewis The Musical would eventually arrive.

Under the direction of Simon Usher, who also directed the show's predecessor Whole Lotta Shakin at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre three years ago, the new £1 million show blasted into Birmingham prior to a West End run. And what a delight it is.

For what makes the immortal difference between this and some of its disappointing rock n roll forerunners is the extremities of Lewis's story. This is by no means just another tribute show. It's Lewis's story, a play where the songs are an integral part of his life.

Thirty short scenes are packed into three hours depicting his teen years, the fire-and-damnation warnings of his religious mother (the excellent Amelda Brown) against playing the devil's music, the row over his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, the fallen career and the glorious comeback.

The acting and emotional rollercoaster task of playing the controversial rock and roller falls on the shoulders of multi-talented Billy Geraghty, and he is no disappointment. He plays and sings with a spine-tingling vitality that has the crowd cheering after every breathless number, from the electric title song through 'Whole Lotta Shakin', 'Good Golly Miss Molly' and the country and western music of Lewis's comeback.

But it's not all rock and roll. The star's life was dogged with tragedy, including the death of two sons and his mother, depression and increased dependency on drugs and alcohol, yet Geraghty holds the audience in the palm of his hand throughout.

For writers Todd Wm Ristau and Richard Cameron, the difficulty obviously lay in condensing more than half a century of career into one show, so they wisely end the piece with Lewis's comeback in the late 60s at the Grand Ole Opry.

This means the show ends on an almighty high, the audience dancing and singing with fireball Geraghty, but to be honest, it's a welcome respite from the darker sides of his story. And who wants to go home miserable anyway?

This is sex, drugs and rock n roll in its entirety, so shake your nerves, rattle your brain, and enjoy the fun.

Elizabeth Ferrie