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Review Round-up: Quartet Rocks the Critics

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Million Dollar Quartet, the jukebox musical featuring the music of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, opened at the West End’s Noel Coward Theatre on Monday (28 February 2011, previews from 8 February).

The show is inspired by an event that took place on 4 December 1956 at Sun Records in Memphis, when legendary music producer Sam Phillips brought Elvis Presley back to the recording studio that launched him to stardom and had him play with the other musicians he had discovered.

Former Coronation Street star Bill Ward plays Sam Phillips, and is joined in the cast by Ben Goddard (Jerry Lee Lewis), Derek Hagen (Johnny Cash), Francesca Jackson (Dyanne), Robert Britton Lyons (Carl Perkins) and Michael Malarkey (Elvis Presley).

Michael Coveney

"Even as a lookalike talent competition, this is pretty dire ... feebly impersonated, respectively, by Robert Britton Lyons (who has come with the show from New York), Derek Hagen, Benn Goddard and Michael Malarkey. We run the gamut of ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ Chuck Berry’s ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man,’ ‘Sixteen Tons,’ ‘I Hear You Knocking’ (well done by slinky Francesca Jackson as Elvis’ girlfriend), ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and so on; but there’s no point of pressure when each song comes, and it’s not the sort of stuff you want to sit in a seat and listen to. You find yourself hand-jiving, tapping your feet and wanting to scream and shout ... After 75 torpid minutes, despite all the frenetic activity, they all give up, too, and the set swings round into a huge lighting bank and a concert encore with a life, and a banality, all of its own.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

“You will gather that I rather disapprove of juke-box musicals, and that’s true, in theory at least. Yet as a middle-aged pop fan I often find myself warming to them, despite all my best intentions … As Neil Young once sang, ‘Hey, hey, my, my, rock and roll will never die,’ and it is a number one can imagine plump theatrical producers humming happily as they saunter down Shaftesbury Avenue contemplating their profits … No one could claim that this is a great, original or ground-breaking piece of work, but anyone who loves rock and roll is almost certain to have a good time ... All four of the main stars perform instrumental duties with admirable panache as well as singing, and the show creates a giddy rush of pleasure as it rips through a couple of dozen hits in 90 minutes … Rock and roll may never die, but boy does it make you feel your age."

David Lister

"The mixture of personalities alone was combustible: Elvis had departed Sun and had enjoyed his first year of music and film superstardom, Cash was torn between pop and gospel, Perkins had barely suppressed resentment that his song ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ was more associated with Presley than with him, Jerry Lee Lewis, later to have a huge hit with ‘Great Balls of Fire’, was a ball of unpredictable energy, rumoured to be a bigamist at 21 ... Ben Goddard's portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis is a highlight of the evening, a bundle of aggression, sexual and otherwise ... It's frustrating though that this show could and should have been better. The enigmatic character of Sam Phillips is barely explored at all, Elvis' distress at losing his roots and becoming a global commodity is nibbled at but not really addressed. The resentments and frustrations of Cash, Perkins and Jerry Lee are also brought up but quickly dropped in the rush to get to the next number."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Ben Goddard doesn’t just play Jerry Lee Lewis. He hurls himself into the role - at the same time hammering out notes on the piano like a man with ten rivet-guns for fingers … The youthful Elvis is played by Michael Malarkey, not quite as a replica but certainly with vocal flair. The same goes for Derek Hagen’s Johnny Cash, who hits low notes with some of the original’s quirky appeal … Normally these tribute nights have corny plots about reunions or ‘how they made it’ narratives. This show is simpler. With about 25 songs and some informative snatches of dialogue it describes a one-off night when four great performers found companionship in a riot of Memphis music making. ‘Rock ’n’ roll ain’t a fad,’ says Phillips. ‘It’s a revolution.’ When it is given this sort of treatment, you can see what he meant."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"The success of Jersey Boys shows there's an appetite for musicals that are part jukebox extravaganza, part documentary - full of hit songs faithfully delivered, and spiced with humour and testosterone. Million Dollar Quartet … Is just such an exercise in upbeat nostalgia ... The music is recreated in an enjoyably vigorous style. The performances go beyond being impersonations, though of course they have to satisfy in that respect. Ben Goddard stands out as Lewis, with effortless technical skill, plain-spoken forwardness and brazen peculiarity … Despite the proficiency of the performances, there's a lack of visceral thrill here. Million Dollar Quartet is decent entertainment, yet fans of the music, even as they enjoy this account of it, are likely to find themselves hankering after their old 45s."

Michael Billington

"What we see on stage is a celebration; and, if you're of a certain generation, it's a joy to hear once again numbers such as ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘I Walk the Line’. Obviously, the cast have to compete with our memories of the real thing, but Ben Goddard does a particularly good job of conveying the anarchic wildness of Jerry Lee Lewis. But Michael Malarkey as Elvis, Derek Hagen as Johnny Cash and Robert Britton Lyons, the one authentic American, as Carl Perkins offer substance as well as shadows. Bill Ward as the pathfinding Phillips and Francesca Jackson as Elvis' squeeze, who offers a notably sultry, microphone-caressing version of 'Fever', add to the gaiety of a show that taps into all our yesterdays."


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