By Gwen Orel
There’s a melancholy underlying the bubbly goodness that is “Million Dollar Quartet,” a musical about the legendary jam session of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley, at Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee, in December 1956.
The jam session really happened, and a newshound there at the time wrote, “This quartet could sell a million.”
So that’s why the musical is called “The Million Dollar Quartet.” All the actors who play the musicians really play. May we just say, wowza.
The music is terrific: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” the lovely hymn “Peace in the Valley.”
I kept looking toward the aisles to see if anyone was dancing in them.
But there is a melancholy too.
It comes from the musical’s narrator, one Sam Cornelius Phillips, who founded Sun Records, discovered each performer, and watched as they left him behind.
The genius of recognizing artistic potential is as rare as the genius of having artistic potential (and I don’t think I’m saying that just because I’m a critic).
In a flashback (the smart book is by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, from an original concept by Mutrux), we see a young Elvis Presley trying to sing like Dean Martin, hilariously badly.
Phillips tells him “Show me your soul.” Shy Elvis begins singing “That’s All Right,” which gradually goes faster and faster until it’s rock ’n’ roll as we know it.
The plot is simple: Elvis, whose contract Phillips sold to RCA, returns to coax Phillips to New York. He drops in on a jam session with Carl Perkins and brother Jay, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Cash drops by to let Phillips know he’s leaving when his contract is done. Perkins and his brother Jay are going too.
That leaves Phillips with nobody but the Tigger-like Lewis, and some Texas kid with a funny last name: Orbison or something.
Director Hunter Foster brings out the inherent drama in the music. There are a lot of songs, but the show never feels like a jukebox musical (except in a good way).
Foster, the brother of Broadway star Sutton Foster, played Phillips on Broadway in 2011.
Elvis’ current girlfriend Dyanne seemed more intrusive than she does here, thanks to Voth and Foster. Bligh Voth gives her a bit of sass, and she sings a terrific “Fever.”
Alex Boniello’s Elvis shows Presley’s sweeter side. David Sonneborn, an original cast member from the Broadway production, plays Fluke, the drummer. Barry’s Carl Perkins cuts a mean lick on the guitar, and Scott Moreau’s Johnny Cash has voice so deep it’s almost funny. But it’s Nat Zegree’s Jerry Lee Lewis who steals the show, loping up to everyone, saying, “I’m Jerry Lee Lewis, from Faraday, Louisiana.” His musical duel with Perkins in Act One is a stand-out. As Lewis, Zegree plays sitting cross-legged, plays upside down, plays lying on the piano bench. When Cash says he’s going to sing a train song, Lewis mutters, “Ain’t you never heard of an air-o-plane, Johnny Cash?”
Jason Loughlin’s Phillips radiates warmth and intelligence. Phillips is often called the father of rock ’n’ roll.
All fathers know their children will grow up one day.
‘Million Dollar Quartet’
by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Original concept by Floyd Mutrux
Through Sunday, April 23
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn