Sons of Sun

Clarendon Guesthouse, April 18

Sons res
Matt Charleston as Sam Phillips. Photo: dusk Devi Vision.

In the mid-1950s a little studio in Memphis, Tennessee, helped define rock’n’roll and the course of popular music for the next half century. Sons of Sun is the story of Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Studio and Sun Records, who played a pivotal role in the careers of such artists as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.

The show is neither a musical nor a cabaret, but rather an innovative hybrid that is part play, part concert. The songs bring to life the work of the people represented in the drama, and the text illuminates the machinations behind the recording of the songs.

It was conceived by John Kennedy who, as the singer fronting an expert trio (with guitarist Murray Cook and bassist Paul Scott) variously becomes Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis, Perkins, Cash, Orbison, Lewis and more. The play, meanwhile, was crafted by Kieran Carroll and directed by Louise Fischer, with Matthew Ccharleston as Phillips, Victoria Beck as his assistant and Ben Maclaine playing multiple roles.

The songs – virtually all classics – are performed in edited guises and the intervening bursts of dialogue are kept snappy, so the show certainly has pace. The downside is that with Kennedy blessed with such a strong and malleable voice and the band so good some songs are screaming for full-length treatments, and similarly the drama of Phillips’ volatile relationships with his artists and staff is somewhat abrogated by the fleeting scenes. A cumulative picture of the man is certainly generated, although perhaps one or two scenes could have been afforded the luxury of delving deeper.

Charleston is a credible and edgy Phillips, Maclaine offers functional depictions of the various stars, and Beck truly shines as Marion Keisker, Phillips’ moral compass, sounding-board and artist appeaser. But overall the songs are slightly stronger than the drama, with Kennedy especially compelling on Mystery Train, Heartbreak Hotel, Fulsome Prison Blues, a too short I Walk the Line and Great Balls of Fire.

Sons of Sun: Melbourne, The Spotted Mallard, Thursday; Flying Saucer Club, Friday; Sydney, Studio, Opera House, May 1 & 2.