A jukebox musical is a pretty low-concept idea, no matter how entertaining the production might turn out. Throw together the songs of Billy Joel and call it Movin' Out. Chart the rise of the Four Seasons and you have Jersey Boys.
Million Dollar Quartet, now playing at the Providence Performing Arts Center through January 20, is a beast of a different color — four colors, actually. It's a marvelous production that so easily could have been run-of-the-mill, getting by on glitz.
Four jukeboxes are harmoniously synchronized. There are rockabilly classics by Carl Perkins like "Matchbox," the blue-collar words of Johnny Cash ("I Walk the Line," Elvis Presley gyrates to "Hound Dog," and Jerry Lee Lewis kicks out the jams — and maybe the piano bench — with his incendiary triple entendre "Great Balls of Fire."
With a book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, the musical celebrates a wonderful moments in rock 'n' roll history: the December 4, 1956, impromptu jam session at Sun Studios that brought the four singers together in Memphis, Tennessee.
The get-together lasted only a couple of hours, so most of the songs here come from other times in the careers of these men. The backstory: Perkins (James Barry) had arranged to record some songs with Jerry Lee (Benjamin Goddard). Presley (Billy Woodward) dropped by with a girlfriend (Kelly Lamont). (Here she's conveniently a singer, but the real visitor was a dancer.) Cash (David Elkins) showed up to break some bad business news to their discoverer, Sun founder Sam Phillips (Vince Nappo).
This show is stunningly well cast. These guys are musicians who can act, not actors who look convincing fingering chords. Elkins's Cash has the deep voice and dignified bearing of the man; you could say he sounds just like the young Man In Black if he didn't sound even better. Barry as Carl Perkins effortlessly bedazzles with his electric guitar like he's ringing a bell. And as Jerry Lee Lewis, Goddard reminds us that the piano is a percussion instrument, pounding intricate riffs out of that poor thing like it's ranting testimony at a revival. Woodward's Elvis Presley doesn't parody his familiar physical style but sometimes does get pelvic for punctuation. As for Phillips, Nappo gives us the professional intensity and personal passion of a man who shaped and promoted these singers to success against all obstacles.
The opening song by the company, "Blue Suede Shoes," is delightfully appropriate, since it has strong connections to three of the four singers here. Although the early rock standard echoes in musical memory as warbled by Elvis, it was written by Perkins — done so on the strong encouragement of Cash, based on a funny anecdote he related.
Between that and Jerry Lee's concluding "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" bringing down the house, we get nearly two dozen songs, from powerful classics like Cash's "I Walk the Line" to more obscure songs, such as the company singing "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," about which Chuck Berry remarked that if the words were "Brown Skinned," he wouldn't have gotten airplay.