Million Dollar Quartet, the current production at Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse, is based on an evening early in December, 1956, when four young singers gathered at the Sun Records studio in Memphis, where each launched his career.
Carl Perkins (James Barry), the writer and original performer of “Blue Suede Shoes,” is hoping for a follow-up hit. Johnny Cash (Scott Moreau) had been avoiding the studio lately because he is holding back news that’s hard for him to relate. Elvis Presley (Alex Boniello) has partially eclipsed the others as the rock ’n’ roll rage and teen idol after his recent appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Jerry Lee Lewis (Nat Zegree), young hotshot piano player with an unchecked ego, is a newcomer who hopes that the head of the studio will help make him a big rock ’n’ roll star, too.
Sun Records is the one-room studio. The determinedly independent owner and operator of the enterprise, Sam Phillips (Jason Loughlin), was the first to see the potential of all four, develop their talent, and give them their start.
The impromptu session begins mostly amicably despite tension between Perkins and Lewis, who chimes into Perkins’ singing and guitar work with wild piano flourishes. As the evening continues, the guys perform songs that will become their signature melodies — “Folsom Prison Blues” (Cash), “Great Balls of Fire” (Lewis), “Hound Dog” (Presley), and “See You Later, Alligator” (Perkins) — as their relationship to Phillips and Sun Records and to each other is revealed.
Directed by Hunter Foster, the show combines elements of the juke box musical, with well-known numbers making up the score, and “based on actual events” fiction. Because the characters are giants in the field of music, we know them already, so a lot of exposition isn’t necessary. The book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux wisely keeps the music prominent throughout.
As Cash, Mr. Moreau, dressed in signature black, channels the deep bass-baritone of Cash in his country-infused story songs and is impressive in his rendition of “Sixteen Tons.” His expression is mostly serious, partly to simulate Cash’s demeanor, but also because he is troubled by an uncomfortable career revelation he must make to Phillips.
Mr. Boniello has the toughest job, since Presley is the most famous of the performers represented and the audience has seen him on TV and in movies. The actor is not an Elvis imitator, with exaggerated movements or an over-the-top caricature. Boniello adopts a few of Presley’s better-known mannerisms, some of his stage postures, and tries to convey Elvis’ vocal style. The actor’s stage presence doesn’t come close to Elvis’ charisma, but Boniello is especially effective when he performs a song and interacts with an female audience member, handing her a scarf from around his neck as Elvis would do in his Las Vegas shows. This is a highlight of his performance.
Because of financial issues, Phillips was forced to sell Elvis’ contract to the record giant, RCA Victor, which has been courting Phillips, too, to come to New York and work with Presley. Executives at the label have little confidence in the longevity of Elvis’ fame, and don’t know what to do with him. Presley, acknowledging Phillips’ importance in putting him on the musical map, is there to coax him to take the offer from RCA.
Mr. Barry’s Perkins looks right at home in the studio, his love of music apparent in every electric guitar chord and his body that simply can’t remain still. He’s serious about his music, resents Presley’s getting a hit with Perkins’ own “Blue Suede Shoes,” and is adamant about recording another hit, which has been eluding him.
As Jerry Lee Lewis, Mr. Zegree is a wonder. Not only does he play the piano ferociously and with jaw-dropping acrobatics, but he is the virtual energy machine for the production. His performance captures the creative on-stage wildness of Lewis, but he also knows how to get a laugh, whether teasing an unamused Perkins, posturing gleefully atop his piano, or swaggering across the stage. Playing the youngest of the four principals, Zegree combines youthful exuberance and arrogance with pure fun. His finest moment comes toward the end when he performs “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and gives a new meaning to show stopper. His performance here is one of the most unbridled, joy-filled delights I’ve ever seen on stage. The opening night audience was on its feet, appropriately caught up in the excitement he generated.
Also in the cast are Bligh Voth as Dyanne, an attractive young woman who accompanies Elvis to the studio. She occasionally performs back-up to the various performances and has two nice solos — the Peggy Lee standard “Fever” and the rhythm and blues standard, “I Hear You Knockin.”
Two back-up musicians are played by David Sonneborn (drums) and Sam Weber (bass). Weber appeared at Paper Mill in Pump Boys and Dinettes and gives his instrument a pretty wild onstage workout.
Million Dollar Quarter will run through April 23. Performances are Wednesdays at 7:30 P.M., Thursdays at 1:30 and 7:30 P.M., Fridays at 8 P.M, Saturdays at 1:30 and 8 P.M., and Sundays at 1:30 and 7 P.M. Tickets start at $34 and may be purchased by calling (973) 376-4343, or at Paper Mill Playhouse box office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or on online at www.papermill.org.