“Million Dollar Quartet” is a hot jam session with Carl’s boys

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Scene from
Scene from "Million Dollar Quartet playing now at the Paper Mill Playhouse

One of the most exciting, anything-can-happen times in musical history was in the early 1950’s when rock ‘n’ roll was being born. That time is skillfully recalled in the musical Million Dollar Quartet, currently playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

Scene from "Million Dollar Quartet playing now at the Paper Mill Playhouse
Scene from “Million Dollar Quartet” playing now at the Paper Mill Playhouse

Million Dollar Quartet recreates real-life events that happened on December 4th, 1956 at the Sun Records studio in Memphis, TN. Sun owner Carl Phillips was overseeing a recording session for Carl Perkins (best known for the song “Blue Suede Shoes”), and had invited a newly signed Jerry Lee Lewis to play piano at the session. During the session, both Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley dropped by. The four artists — the Million Dollar Quartet — performed for the first and only time together, a once-in-a-lifetime jam session that fortunately was recorded.

The show includes, in scenes shown from Phillips’ point of view, the story behind the start of Sun Records, how each of the four musical powerhouses was signed to the label, and how they, encouraged and mentored by Phillips, found their own individual musical voices. Also in the cast are the session musicians W.S. “Fluke” Holland, the drummer, and Jay Perkins, the double bass player and Carl’s brother, and Dyanne, Elvis’ girlfriend and a singer in her own right. Together and separately, the musicians run through songs of the era, from the frenetic “Real Wild Child” to the sultry “Fever”, and from the gospel classic “Peace in the Valley” to the dynamic blend of “Rockin’ Robin” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” that ends the first act.

Scene from "Million Dollar Quartet" playing now at the Paper Mill Playhouse
Scene from “Million Dollar Quartet” playing now at the Paper Mill Playhouse

The cast, playing their own instruments onstage, skillfully recalls the flavor of the new rock ’n’ roll sound emerging from the 50’s. Director Hunter Foster, a veteran of the original Broadway production as a performer and of many regional productions as director, draws well-rounded characterizations from his actors without letting them fall into doing mere impersonations of the Quartet members. James Barry on guitar and Sam Weber on bass, both of whom entertained Paper Mill audiences last season in Pump Boys and Dinettes, let their sense of family breathe through their performances as the Perkins brothers.

Scott Moreau’s Johnny Cash captures the earnest seriousness the young Cash had at that point in his career. Alex Boniello captures Elvis at his first taste of the stardom that awaited him, still wishing life could be as simple as it was before he moved to RCA Victor. Bligh Voth as Dyanne is a delight both with her vocals — at turns sultry, sassy, smooth in ensemble, and confident in solo work — and with her performance of a woman quick with a comeback yet sensitive in her understanding of the world of these men. Jason Loughlin’s Sam Phillips is not given many moments to shine but comes through in several emotionally powerful scenes in the second act.

Scene from "Million Dollar Quartet" playing now at the Paper Mill Playhouse
Scene from “Million Dollar Quartet” playing now at the Paper Mill Playhouse

The two best performances — for wildly different reasons — are Nat Zegree as Jerry Lee Lewis and David Sonneborn as drummer “Fluke” Holland. Seeing Zegree’s performance as the high-voltage Lewis is like watching an overheated dynamo in a Warner Bros. cartoon. Your glance keeps returning to him all through the show; you just know he’s fixin’ to do something outlandish, and you don’t want to miss the explosion when he does. As for Sonneborn, it would be easy to overlook him altogether, until your ears remind you that his solid percussion work is the rock upon which all the other music rests. It is his rhythmic talent, honed by a long career, which gives solid musical roots to this show.

I’ve often mentioned the outstanding job we’ve come to expect from the Paper Mill’s creative team, and this time is no exception. The fine recreation of DerekMcLane’s original scenic design by Adam Koch and Kelly James Tighe; Molly Walz’s original costume design, coordinated and enhanced by China Lee; and the lighting by Ryan O’Gara are all excellent. While there were problems with Randy Hansen’s sound in the first act in terms of balance, those problems were fixed in time for the start of act two.

The one big problem with the performance I saw was, surprisingly enough, the audience. Million Dollar Quartet is a show that calls for lots of spontaneous reaction from its audience — hand clapping, humming, singing, even dancing in the aisles. I think that perhaps two things worked against such reactions: one, that an opening night audience is perhaps more inhibited than other audiences in this regard; and two, that audiences are conditioned to see performers use familiar gestures to indicate that audience participation is encouraged, and that was not what was done here (nor should it have been). Although the cast got a rousing standing ovation, and toward the very end there were a few brave souls shimmying in the aisles and at their seats, I think the audience missed out on feeling the full uplifting power of live musical performance that could have been theirs.

What’s left to say? Go now, buy your ticket, find your seat, and just surrender yourself to the raw energy and sheer thrilling musicianship that is Million Dollar Quartet! You won’t regret it!

Million Dollar Quartet is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through April 23rd. For tickets and information, visit www.papermill.org