On December 4, 1956, four of the godfathers of rock and roll had an all-star jam session that forever dubbed Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley the "Million Dollar Quartet." Individually, they're some of the most tortured and scandal-ridden artists of the 1950s. But Million Dollar Quartet — the jukebox musical that debuted on Broadway in 2010 and has now circled round to Paper Mill Playhouse — leaves most of the drama at the door and indulges audiences in a satisfying piece of history set to the early soundtrack of rock.
Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux's Tony-nominated book hints at some personal strife among the artists. A frustrated Perkins (James Barry) rails at Presley (Alex Boniello) for singing his song "Blue Suede Shoes" on The Ed Sullivan Show while a motormouthed Lewis (Nat Zegree) cracks an offhand joke about his marital affairs (Lewis was married a total of seven times, once to his teenage cousin). But on the whole, the only friction that seeps in between the quartet's jubilant covers of their greatest hits and some gospel tunes surrounds the man responsible for the historic meeting.
Jason Loughlin plays Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, a commanding lynchpin for a show that is much heavier on music than story. Hunter Foster, who originated the role of Phillips on Broadway, directs the production as a touching homage to the legendary music producer and his two-man operation that launched these four hall-of-famers before they abandoned the Memphis shop for more lucrative deals. Over a smoke break, Cash (Scott Moreau) musters the courage to tell Phillips of his plans to leave for Columbia Records (as does the consistently underappreciated Perkins).
Ironically, it's superstar Presley (whose Sun contract was sold to RCA) who yearns to come back to the homegrown outfit, while Lewis makes pigheaded plans to be Sun's next big star. The shaky future that all of this hands Sun and its passionate owner is the drama that technically gives the story of Million Dollar Quartet its plot-driving suspense. However, with history in the rear view mirror and an expectation that the audience has preexisting emotional attachments to the key players, the dramatic stakes never get particularly high. But to quote Presley's first Sun single, "That's All Right."
Million Dollar Quartet's main attraction is not its historical fact-finding but its joyful resurrection of musical powerhouses — something the Paper Mill production doesn't knock it out of the park but it delivers with satisfying sufficiency. Moreau dons the Johnny Cash black (costumes by Molly Walz) and deep bass for his eerily loyal renditions of "Sixteen Tons" and "I Walk the Line"; Barry delivers his Carl Perkins numbers with the same proficiency and charisma that he had in Paper Mill's Southern-flavored musical Pump Boys and Dinettes last season; and Boniello lends a strong voice to his Elvis songs, though he doesn't exude quite enough swagger to fill out the Presley pompadour and iconic dance moves. Bligh Voth also sings a steamy rendition of "Fever" as Elvis' fictitious girlfriend Dyanne.
Zegree is the musical's showstopper (as Levi Kreis was when he made his Tony-winning Broadway debut as acrobatic pianist Jerry Lee Lewis). No matter who takes the spotlight, your eye can't help but be drawn downstage right to Zegree's isolated piano isle where he displays a kind of musicianship that seems more like a nervous tick than an act of conscious creation. He's the smart aleck little brother of the recording studio who you love to hate and hate to love — but he dutifully earns the show's final encore of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," complete with Lewis' gymnastic moves.
Each solo performance is a crowd-pleaser, but the group's moments as an actual "Million Dollar Quartet" are the most satisfying — particularly their spot-on harmonies to "Down By the Riverside," which actually made it into the 1956 session. If you're a true rock-and-roll historian, you'll be driven mad by anachronisms, but the chance to see Elvis sing backup is worth a million dollars alone.