I’ve got to confess to a certain innate snobbery about any form of jukebox musical. Perhaps it’s that cringe that goes with the words, “You’ll love this, it’s your sort of music”, or maybe the vision of hordes of day-glo-clad Strictly wannabes performing massed dance routines to bad covers of 50s pop hits with a tangential connection to proper rock’n’roll, but it would usually take a team of particularly persuasive horses to drag me anywhere near a theatrical production purporting to bring the rock’n’roll era to life. But the implied niche-ness of ‘Sun Records – the Concert’ held the promise that the source material would be ‘our sort of music’ – after all, why would anyone bother putting together a show on that theme if they didn’t actually like the Sun sound? Add the attraction of a night out with Mrs M after a working weekend and a venue just minutes from the front door of MidCentury Villas, and we thought it had to be worth a punt.
It all began promisingly with a background CD of authentic Sun rockabilly which made us wish we’d gone into the auditorium as soon as we got there as we never imagined we’d hear that kind of stuff played in our local theatre. An introductory video clip from John Singleton, son of Shelby who bought the company from founder Sam Philips (and so probably saved much of the Sun catalogue from destruction) set a suitable tone as the first live performance opened the show – a recreation of Elvis’ all-important first visit to 706 Union Avenue to put My Happiness on disc for his mother. Michael Glaysher’s Elvis impressed from the beginning, but then he slipped away to leave the stage clear for Remi Banklyn’s evocation of Rufus Thomas, complete with some nicely authentic blues guitar. To kick the main part of the show off with one of Sun’s black artists and blues heritage was a nice touch, reflecting that Sun was about so much more than Mr Presley and that Sam Philips was way ahead of his time in putting musicality before skin colour. Drum, upright bass and electric guitar player joined him on the evocation of the Sun studio, picking up and augmenting the rhythm, before Billy Collins-Nuttall stepped in, accurately channelling Johnny Cash in looks, voice and guitar and performing style alike. I baulked a little at the addition of drums to the classic Tennessee Two backing, and lead guitarist Gerry Slattery lacked that sense of sheer terror that always accompanied Luther Perkins solos, but the overall effect was very close to the original. Gavin Stanley’s Carl Perkins was less convincing – he didn’t look like him at all, had a less than distinctive voice, and didn’t play Perkins’ guitar breaks, which contrasted poorly with the Johnny Cash character alongside him. Cody Lee as Jerry Lee Lewis, however, might not have had the Killer’s flowing blond locks, but he certainly had the keyboard skills which brought Jerry’s swaggering attack on his classic numbers to life with real panache. Together they worked through a range of their characters’ classic recordings, with guitarist Slattery adding a credible Roy Orbison to the line-up. Their collective attempt at a Prisonaires’ number didn’t quite come off for me as it had an unnatural showband air to it, and Remi Banklyn’s singing voice was, if anything, too good to capture the raw delivery of Howlin’ Wolf, but no one could fault the choice of material and only the dedicated Sun afficionado (that’ll be us, then) would have noticed.
Michael Glaysher’s return to the stage as Elvis raised the bar still further. I’m deeply wary of Elvis impersonations – so many of them are at best two-dimensional and completely miss the natural musicality of Presley’s vocal range. Mr Glaysher seemed to have it all – a voice sweeping effortless from the high ranges to the deep, Presley’s natural looseness in his movements, and the shy good humour that shines through his early performances. Not only did every cover sound spot on – not least thanks to the backing of Slattery and Mark Fisher, who caught Bill Black’s slapping bass perfectly – but I just enjoyed watching him perform which came as a pleasant surprise to this cynical old rockabilly. I felt a little sorry for drummer Nathan Jordan, who worked his socks off throughout the show with some cracking work on the skins but who, according to the programme, was supposed to represent DJ Fontana – who never recorded on Presley’s Sun sessions. Why the producers couldn’t have credited Jimmy Van Eaton or one of the other classic Sun drummers, I couldn’t understand.
Interval time, a bit of slightly confused switching of CDs (surely it wouldn’t be too hard to put together a CD of Sun records not featured in the show that would fill the pre-curtain and interval periods without having to repeat or change discs?) and the surreal experience of Carl Perkins coming on stage to draw the raffle in a very English accent (and, given that the reward was half the raffle takings, wouldn’t Johnny have been more appropriate for a ‘Cash’ prize?). Back in our seats and the whole cast returned for what was termed ‘the Sun concert that never was’. Having read a few on-line reviews that made reference to a kind of rock’n’roll greatest hits segment, we were a bit worried that the Sun theme would lose direction, but were much relieved to find that it just meant that they could work their way through a whole string of numbers by the featured artists and others from the Sun stable without having to worry about who actually recorded what. Thus we had bits of Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley thrown in, and numbers shared between all those on stage while, especially for Elvis and JC, remaining firmly in character. Close to the end, a segment entitled ‘the Sun legacy’ produced one odd moment – most of it featured hits that the Sun artists had gone on to record on other labels, including Elvis’ RCA material, Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ and, of course, the Big O’s ‘Pretty Woman’ (sadly none of Carl Perkins’ Columbia tracks, though). Thrown into the mix, though, was ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ – great rockin’ track, sure, and a suitably number to feature Jerry Lee on, but I’m pretty sure Little Richard would take offence at any implication that his career was inspired by a bunch of rockabillies from Memphis! My fear that this would mark a departure from the world of Sam Philips was unfounded, though, as the cast swung into a storming rendition of ‘Good Rocking Tonight’ to close the show.
I don’t think we’ll be making a bee line for the many revival musicals doing the rounds, but this was certainly a good night out delivered by a bunch of talented youngsters, some if not all home-grown in the UK, who’d clearly done their homework and were intent on giving value (which extended to meeting the audience in the foyer outside for umpteen selfies). And if it gets just one of the many who attended listening a bit more closely to the output of 706 Union Avenue, or even coming down to one of our record hops to hear the real thing spinning round at 45 rpm, that can’t be a bad thing.