From its very first notes, Million Dollar Quartet is clearly no run-of-the-mill jukebox musical. The show serves both as a time capsule and a time machine, taking a nostalgic look back at the emergence of rock 'n' roll in the late 1950s and, specifically, recreating a legendary moment in the history of the genre.
On the night of December 4, 1956, four of the biggest stars of their era - Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley - had an unplanned yet serendipitous meeting at Sun Records studio in Memphis. As this unexpected "million dollar" quartet began an impromptu jam session, Sun founder Sam Phillips (who originally discovered each man and cultivated their careers) switched on the studio's recorders to capture an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime concert.
The Million Dollar Quartet cast provides a glimpse into history as they bring this night of music vividly to life, tracing each icon's transition from gospel roots to rock, R&B, and country. Hit songs - including "Matchbox," "Great Balls of Fire," "Hound Dog," and "Folsom Prison Blues" - highlight the men's musical journey and foreshadow their personal and professional futures as they begin breaking ties with Sun Records and moving further into the arena of success and celebrity.
The touring company of MDQ is brimming with incredible talent. In addition to non-stop, high-energy storytelling through song (Million Dollar Quartet is presented without an intermission), the cast members also expertly play their own instruments. The actors inhabit the men they portray and modulate their voices and movements to bring a sense of authenticity to their performances.
Billy Woodward plays a young Elvis Presley, and he captures an "out-of-spotlight" quality to the budding king of rock 'n' roll. Woodward showcases Elvis' signature dance moves and croons (with noteworthy likeness) familiar songs, but he retains an air of gratitude in Phillips' presence and seems to genuinely enjoy sharing the spotlight with his friends and fellow artists. Woodward also gives insight into Elvis' inner conflict. When Jerry Lee Lewis (Benjamin Goddard) tauntingly confronts Elvis about his Christian upbringing and his success in secular music (a concern each man shares, evidenced in this conversation and through a selection of spiritual songs included in the recording session), Woodward appears genuinely unsettled, the mask of celebrity slipping even further.
Goddard's vivacious portrayal of Lewis exhausts a thesaurus' entries for the word "energetic." Irreverent, animated, and endearing, Goddard's Lewis brims with confidence and begs for the attention of the room, challenging the other artists and demonstrating superior skill at the piano. Goddard takes special delight in using the piano to provide musical commentary during conversations, and he recreates Lewis' dynamic showmanship, climbing on top of the instrument in order to make a particular point or to show off for the assembled group.
James Barry brings great complexity to the role of Carl Perkins. Though Perkins clearly enjoys the chance to make music with his friends and colleagues, old grievances and broken promises have driven a wedge into his relationships, especially with Presley and Phillips. Barry allows these hurts to emerge organically, most often by displaying a short fuse when dealing with the irrepressible Jerry Lee, yet he tempers them with an air of professionalism and an enduring regard for his colleagues and his mentor. A skilled guitarist, Barry demonstrates remarkable musicianship, enthusiasm, and flair in his playing.
David Elkins rounds out the quartet as "the man in black," Johnny Cash. Elkins brings a calming presence to the stage, especially notable during his one-on-one moments with Goddard. At all times, Elkins' Cash remains respectful, professional, and gentlemanly, though his mannerisms also hint at the shadows to come in the future for the music legend. Elkins gives a spot-on vocal performance, capturing Cash's signature sound with power and richness. In addition, Cash's pending parting of the ways with Sun Records provides one of the more serious and emotional threads of the otherwise lighthearted gathering.
Corey Kaiser and Billy Shaffer bring marvelous dry wit to the characters of Jay Perkins and Fluke, the studio's longsuffering bassist and drummer, on top of being absolutely stellar musicians. Kelly Lamont, MDQ's only female performer, plays Dyanne (a fictional character loosely based on Elvis' real-life then-girlfriend, Marilyn Evans) with plenty of personality and spunk.
As Sam Phillips, Vince Nappo shoulders the brunt of the storytelling, alternatively moving through real-time events with the other actors and regaling the audience with a thoroughly enjoyable lesson in the history of rock 'n' roll. The contract scene with Nappo, Elkins and Barry is one of the most compelling of the production. Phillips' narration and the business of musical success provide an underlying tension that keeps Million Dollar Quartet from veering into a simple jukebox show. Instead, the men's complicated personal and professional relationships are presented with sensitivity, heart, and - of course - song.
Million Dollar Quartet plays the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, January 20, 2013. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ppacri.org, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $36-$63 and discounted rates are available for groups of 20 or more.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel