The Civic - Auckland Live, Auckland

09/06/2017 - 18/06/2017

Production Details

The Tony Award-winning Million Dollar Quartet will rock The Civic, 9-18 June

Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire! Jason Donovan is on his way to New Zealand in the cast of the award-winning, international hit musical Million Dollar Quartet.

Million Dollar Quartet is inspired by the incredible true events of December 4, 1956, when the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Sam Phillips, brought together four music giants – Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley – for one of the greatest impromptu recording sessions of all time. This high voltage, all-Americana, rock ‘n roll sensation plays at Auckland’s The Civic from 9 to 18 June.

On that fateful day in 1956, at Sun Record Studios in Memphis, studio owner and producer Phillips (Jason Donovan) scheduled a session for Carl Perkins to cut some new material following his recent hit Blue Suede Shoes. He called in a relatively unknown piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis to accompany Perkins. Former Sun artist Elvis Presley happened to drop in for an unannounced visit. Likewise, Johnny Cash, Sun’s best-selling artist at that time, swung by, too.

The four met and the conversation flowed. Then; the music. Luckily Sound Engineer Jack Clement thought to hit ‘Record’ and capture the 46 songs this soon-to-be-called “Million Dollar Quartet” threw together. Their jam session of old favorites, originals and familiar gospel songs became a milestone event in musical history.

The prophetic, real-life event inspired music historian and writer Colin Escott, and film writer and producer Floyd Mutrux, to create a book and stage version of what transpired that night. Since its debut in 2006, the musical version of Million Dollar Quartet has enjoyed hugely successful runs on Broadway, at London’s West End and tours of the USA and the UK.

The musical which inspired the upcoming US TV series, Sun Studios, comes to New Zealand direct from the UK, with a cast that comprises Ross Wild as Elvis Presley, Robbie Durham as Johnny Cash, Matt Wycliffe as Carl Perkins, Ashley Carruthers as Jerry Lee Lewis, Katie Ray playing Dyanne and Australian TV and music icon, Jason Donovan (Neighbours, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Sweeney Todd) in the role of the legendary Sam Phillips.

Show Details
Million Dollar Quartet
9-18 June, 2017
The Civic
Cnr Wellesley and Queen Sts, Auckland
Tickets: | 09 970 9700

With hits like Blue Suede Shoes, Great Balls of Fire, I Walk The Line, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, Folsom Prison Blues and Hound Dog, Million Dollar Quartet, with its Super-55 mics, is a toe-tapping, thigh-slapping, rockin’ night out.

It’s the first time in a long while I’ve seen an audience literally dancing in the aisles during a finale – Theatre Weekly

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.” – The Guardian

It evokes a whole era with an authenticity that delights and a poignancy that stills. – the

A treat for anyone who wants to bask in a little jukebox magic. – Time Out London

Theatre , Musical ,

Rock ’n’ Roll Avengers

Review by James Wenley 11th Jun 2017

There’s a bit of scuttlebutt as to what happened when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins got together in Memphis at Sun Records on December 4, 1956 for an impromptu jam session (that, after years of legal wrangling, became an album in 1981). Cash is said to have only turned up for the photo, though swore he was on the record.

Perkins’ star was on the wane, Lewis was yet to rise, Cash had walked the line but hadn’t yet fell into the ring of fire, and Presley was a musical phenomenon and film-star (though in this show says a Las Vegas appearance hadn’t gone down well with the older crowd).

The producer who assembled these rock ’n’ roll Avengers was Sam Phillips, played by Jason Donovan, who is credited in the programme as the man who created rock ’n’ roll. [More]  


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An altogether satisfying entertainment package

Review by Nik Smythe 10th Jun 2017

The mythical reputation of the once-in-five-lifetimes convergence of the three biggest Southern recording stars at the time (Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash), with the soon-to-be fourth (Jerry Lee Lewis) and their legendary boss and mentor Sam Phillips, has been documented quite extensively since it occurred back on December the 4th 1956.  Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott’s quintessential dramatised live-musical biography captures the deeply and widely perceived ethic of the historic event, while not letting the entire truth get in the way of a good story or a rockin’ gig. 

None of the actors are really dead ringers for their roles visually speaking, but what they lack in physical likeness is made up for in character with appropriate raw energy and spirit under the direction of Ian Talbot.  

Jason Donovan has the most leeway there as his character, the arguable inventor of the Southern-rooted rock ‘n roll sound, Sam Phillips, worked behind the mics and so has had considerably less exposure than his boys.  Donovan’s depiction seems a mite cornball at first, due partly to his forth-wall breaking narration device, but ultimately his essential presence jibes in well with the all-star cast. 

Martin Kaye encapsulates an aptly brash, impertinent, unapologetically egocentric would-be show stealer as the new kid in town (destined to become the Last Man Standing) Jerry Lee Lewis.  Ross William Wild doesn’t carry the incomparably palpable charisma of his 21 year-old Elvis; similarly Robbie Durham works hard but doesn’t quite reach the unsurpassed gravitas of his revered subject Johnny Cash.  Nevertheless, in and of themselves their performances are dramatically strong and musically satisfying. 

The most enlightening subplot is that of the King of Rockabilly Carl Perkins, played by Matthew Wycliffe with a seasoned air, undermined by the resentment of his borderline has-been status.  Generally, all most people these days know about him, if anything, is that one of Elvis’s hugest hits ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ was originally his.  Amongst many factoids I did not know is that Perkins’ original was Sun Studios’ first No. 1 single, making everything that followed possible, or that this day in question began as a recording session for his comeback single ‘Matchbox’, with freshly-signed Jerry Lee brought in as a session pianist: cue testosterone-loaded ego clash. 

As musicians they don’t perfectly emulate their counterparts’ musicality but they’re close enough and they play very well, particularly Carl’s dynamic “gee-tarrin’” and Jerry Lee’s maniacal “pee-anna”.  Necessarily for pumping up the modern crowd, the sound production is beefed up from the comparatively quaint leanness of the genuine article, the playlist overall given a world-class respectful treatment. 

My baby-boomer plus-one’s one quibble was Jerry Lee’s iconic ‘Great Balls of Fire’ was overly thrashy compared to its more nuanced classic recordings, though redeemed by the superbly played breakdown section in his encore rendition of ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’.

Filling in the rhythm section are the exceptional percussive talents of Ben Cullingworth on drums and the equally outstanding double-bass skills of James Swinnerton, in character as Carl’s actual big brother Jay Perkins.  Meanwhile behind the control-room window, an uncredited actor, presumably playing Phillips’ engineer Jack Clement, busies himself capturing the allegedly impromptu cuts for posterity and eventual profit. 

As alluded to earlier, some liberties are taken in the narrative for dramatic purposes.  In particular the presence of Dyanne, a fictional role based on Elvis’s short-term girlfriend who was with him on the day but was not in reality a Hollywood singer as portrayed in the story.  She even helms a couple of non-canon numbers, notably ‘Fever’ sung in the classic Peggy Lee style,   “bringin’ some class into this joint” to admirable effect. 

Other elements in the drama, such as Cash’s decision to sign with a bigger label, are based in fact but I daresay wouldn’t have all played out on the specific day of this historic session as it does in the play. Indeed, cross-referencing anecdotes online I note a few minutiae and variations on the details, showing that a number aspects of the legend can’t be conclusively verified unless by the recordings themselves. 

It is certainly true that Elvis was already signed to RCA a year earlier and on the categorical day was simply paying a visit to his old friends where it all began.  I wonder whether the fact that there was no commercial release of the session until twenty-five years later is connected to the clash of contractual ownership between the artists, despite the fact they all began their stellar careers at Sun.

The story plays out as recollected by Donovan’s Phillips, incorporating myriad allusions to everyone’s backstories, plus the odd discussion on the socio-political aspects such as the racial issues of the day, inasmuch as they affected the music and radio industry.  As the tension comes to a head in the final quarter, the music and action grinds almost to a halt, only to spring back like a post-bridge final chorus smashing out a string of live-concert style iconic numbers for the up-until-now sitting audience to either hit the aisles swinging or just boogie in our seats.

All appreciative credit is due to the production team too: David Howe’s exemplary lighting, David Farley’s cleverly claustrophobic “chicken shed studio” set design, and well-appointed period outfits, and obviously the crucial skills of sound designer Ben Harrison and musical director Phillip Murray Watson.  Together with the cast and crew they deliver an altogether satisfying entertainment package.


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