Entertainment :: Theatre

Million Dollar Quartet

by Will Demers
Contributor
Saturday Jan 19, 2013
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The cast of ’Million Dollar Quartet’ at PPAC
The cast of ’Million Dollar Quartet’ at PPAC  (Source:Jeremy Daniel)

December 4th, 1956: Perkins, Lewis, Presley, Cash. A "Million Dollar Quartet." Local Memphis reporter Bob Johnson witnesses a jam session before there were any and the result is a history-making night.

After a rocky start, Sun records owner Sam Phillips is determined to bring Blues and Rock and Roll to the country by taking chances on new artists, and new sounds. Carl Perkins, already on the label was having a rough year after recording "Blue Suede Shoes" and seeing it hit nationally by another artist: Elvis Presley.

Phillips sold Presley to RCA for a tidy sum to jump-start Sun, and Johnny Cash had been established for some time as a blues staple. The fourth artist is a new piano player by the name of Jerry Lee Lewis, whose rockabilly style is meant to refresh Perkins’ ailing sound.

The night will bring revelation, amazing music and some drama as well. This is the premise of "Quartet," which comes to Providence after opening on Broadway in 2010 to rave reviews and earning a Tony Award.

Based on real life events, with book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and original concept by Mutrux, it captures a night in which all the music was recorded from start to finish. The interactions with each artist are based partly on fact; the rest are speculative. What sets it apart is live playing, singing, and an electric and organic show that starts toes tapping. By the end, they are dancing in the aisles.

Billy Woodwards’ Elvis Presley is fantastic. He mimics the King’s onstage moves perfectly but inhabits the role completely as a suave pre-Hollywood star.

Phillips (Vince Nappo) is the kind of guy who encourages his artists to experiment and grow; Nappo captures his energy comfortably. Perkins (James Barry) is a bit of a hothead whose floundering career is made even more frustrating by the presence of Elvis Presley (Billy Woodward) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Benjamin Goddard). Barry makes his Perkins a gruff, argumentative but competent player who wants none of the other’s help.

Woodward’s Presley is fantastic. He mimics the King’s onstage moves perfectly but inhabits the role completely as a suave pre-Hollywood star. Goddard’s Jerry Lee Lewis is a revelation. The energy of his performance is the main reason the show works so well; the piano playing and comic touches are the glue for the onstage action and fun of the piece.

David Elkins’ Johnny Cash works so well that his musical numbers ("Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line") sound more like original recordings then covers. His cool and introspective nature are a natural for the actor. Kelly Lamont tears up the stage as Elvis’ girlfriend Dyanne ("Fever") ("I hear you Knocking").

The rest of the musical numbers capture the spontaneity of what must have been a fantastic evening. Director Eric Schaeffer paces the show smoothly, without intermission, to keep the feel of a recording session where people come and go with presumably no set agenda.

Musical arranger Chuck Mead pulls together a daunting task of making the music just seem to happen as it must have back on that fateful night in 1956. The sets by Derek McLane and costumes by Jane Greenwood take us back to the mid 1950’s quite effectively and vividly.

The show even features an encore finale in true Broadway tradition complete with flashy costumes and some very impressive acrobatics with some of the instruments. Rock and Roll came to life that night, and we are flies on the wall for this "Quartet."

"Million Dollar Quartet" runs through Jan. 20 at Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset Street #2 in Providence. For info or tickets, call 401-421-ARTS (2787) or visit www.ppac.org.

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