Friday, 14 October 2011

Million Dollar Quartet Review

What the Million Dollar Quartet posters say about the show having a ‘soundtrack to die for’ is true. This is the best thing about the latest in a long line of ‘jukebox’ musicals, which rely on past hits churned out by tribute musicians. Million Dollar Quartet is based on a real event in winter 1956, at Sun Records, the only time that Sam Phillips’ rock ‘n’ roll stars, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis played together.

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The success of a jukebox musical, especially one with little plot to speak of, relies on the talent of the actors. Thankfully, here the cast has it in spades. All four of the quartet sing rock ‘n’ roll classics finely, including ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, ‘Matchbox’, and two sweeter, more tranquil numbers, the gospel song ‘Down by the Riverside’ and ‘Peace in the Valley’. Francesca Jackson plays Dyanne, the slinky, sassy girlfriend of Elvis, based on the real girlfriend, Marylin Evans, who was present at the recording. Her songs, ‘I Hear You Knocking’ and ‘Fever’ are both sexy and powerful, providing a nice contrast to the boys’ numbers. But Ben Goddard, as a very young Jerry Lee Lewis, steals the show, a fun but annoying bundle of youthful, energetic self-confidence. He displays the future of Sun Records, and Sam Phillips’ latest investment, as Phillips’ older stars take new record deals with RCA and Columbia.

The drama just about holds attention, though it is at times stretched thinly. The tension and poignancy of each artist’s story is touched upon, though in none is its full potential realised. We would have liked to have seen more of Phillips’ enigma, Cash’s internal tussle between rock and gospel, Perkins’ poor Tennessee roots, and Elvis’ regret at losing his own roots to global fame. The drama is at its strongest in the freeze-frame asides which pitch back to pivotal incidents in Elvis’ and Perkins’ rise to fame. These work so well it is surprising they are not given greater prominence.

However, what the show lacks in depth of story, it makes up for in great rock ‘n’ roll music, which all fans of the genre will love, whether or not you remember the real event. The talented cast presents a fine tribute to four rock ‘n’ roll legends, and a historic day in the genre’s calendar. The music still takes you back to the ‘50s, whether or not you lived them.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Betty Blue Eyes Musical Review

Betty Blue Eyes is a rare case in musical theatre these days: a success in terms of story, character and humour. Based on the movie A Private Function, conceived and scripted by Alan Bennett and Malcolm Mowbray, the the musical succeeds in delighting and charming its audience with a message of social equality, set against the slow bubbling frustration of British post-war austerity.

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The musical shows the frustrating social stratification in the disappointing aftermath of the war, which appeared to improve nothing for normal people. Anthony Drewe’s lyrics pinpoint this post-war illumination, such as in the ironic success song ‘Another Little Victory’ which compares the centre-point of the story, the successful theft of a pig, with winning the war. Equally, ‘Magic Fingers’, shows the innocently erotic power of the foot doctor, Gilbert Chilvers, to relieve his sexually frustrated women customers. There is something bleak and touching about this song, in the daily aches and mental pains of families touched by war.

It is thanks to the actor, Reece Shearsmith, that Gilbert’s songs are the most moving. He is humble, kind, and nervous, playing the emotionally deepest character in a line-up of three-dimensional characters. His solo renditions in ‘A Place on the Parade’ and ‘The Kind of Man I Am’ track his climbing and falling self-confidence and hope, which form one of the crucial emotional investments. Equally illuminating are the flashes into the imagination of Gilbert’s wife, Joyce (Sarah Lancashire), which soften her otherwise ruthless, easily detestable Lady Macbeth character.

The audience was largely made up of older folk, who can remember this post-war era. Though you don’t have to remember it to enjoy the show, it is clearly not targeted towards small children, since there are sexual references and ineundo throughout. However, the farcical aspects are most fun, and have very wide appeal. The number ‘Pig No Pig’ is an hilarious scene, involving the central family trio, Joyce, Gilbert and Joyce’s Mother Dear. The actors seamlessly combine their lines and movements with the fun music and its witty lyrics.

Betty Blue Eyes reminds us of two more excellent musicals, Blood Brothers and Billy Elliot. They are all about real people, struggling in real, historical settings, with unlikely situations thrown at them. The best stories those we can relate to, which is why this one works so well.