‘Million Dollar Quartet’ at Paper Mill Playhouse shakes up the house

Let’s just cut to the chase.  Nat Zegree practically steals the show at Paper Mill Playhouse playing the brash — let’s make that audacious — Jerry Lee Lewis  in “Million Dollar Quartet.” He ought to know what he’s doing by now as it’s the fifth time he’s played that part in the many productions of this jukebox musical about an unplanned event some say is a seminal moment in rock ‘n’ roll history.

The 2 1/2 musical features more than 20 classic hits including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Memories Are Made of This,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” “(Ghost Riders in the Sky” and  “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

In addition to  Zegree, the cast includes James Barry as Carl Perkins (also the show’s music director), Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash, and Alex Boniello as Elvis Presley.

What’s missing from the show is a heftier book to go with the hit songs. But nobody goes to see a musical because of the plot. You go for the songs, the razzle-dazzle, the show stoppers, the escapism. By the time we get to the end of “Million Dollar Quartet”” it’s a concert, no dialogue. That’s not a bad thing.

Jason Loughlin is just fine as Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, whose character also acts as a sort of narrator for that cold night on Dec. 4, 1956 in Memphis  when Presley dropped in on Phillips during  Perkins’s recording session while new guy Lewis is backing him on piano — when he wasn’t trying to steal the song out from under Perkins.

The cast also includes David Sonneborn as Fluke and Sam Weber as Brother Jay, as members of Perkin’s  band. Bligh Voth is Dyanne, Presley girlfriend and female vocalist.

Elvis was wildly successful but no longer under contract with Sun Records. Cash was was on his way up having released two hit records, “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” He felt Sun was too small to handle him and Phillips wasn’t paying him enough royalties.  In the musical, Cash was planning to break the news that night that he  was leaving for Columbia Records.

Phillips still had Perkins under contract, although his career was floundering. Lewis was just starting out.

Phillips left the tapes running but nothing was done with them until 1981 when they were discovered  and released with 17 songs focusing on  gospel music. “Million Dollar Quartet” includes “Down by the Riverside” and “Peace in the Valley.”

Very nicely directed by Hunter Foster, who played Sam Phillips in the original “Million Dollar Quartet (plus eight other Broadway musicals). As always here at Paper Mill, the tech team is first class.

The show ends April 23. 2017. Click here to order tickets.

One More Thing …

I do have one major problem with the show written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and based on Mutrux’s original concept and direction. And. It’s. Personal.

UPI photographer took this photo at Sun Studios that fateful night that (from left)  Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash sang together.
UPI photographer took this photo at Sun Studios that fateful night that (from left) Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash sang together.

During that fateful December night, as the story goes, Phillips called  the local newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimita, looking for coverage. Entertainment Editor Bob Johnson arrived at the studios with United Press International photographer George Pierce. The next day Johnson’s article about the session was published with the headline “Million Dollar Quartet.”

So without the story and clever headline, plus photo by Pierce, the event would not have been documented, just recorded. Even with the tapes, would the people who discovered them know what they had? So why isn’t there an actor playing Bob Johnson!?

Explain to me why the other crucial aspect to this unplanned event — a newspaper man who realized what a good story this would make just with Elvis alone — is not a character in this musical. He could have been the narrator. And don’t give me money the argument about budget constraints.

Journalists need jobs! They’re getting laid-off by the thousands. Even pretend ones can’t  get “jobs” in musicals. Such characters remind theater audiences — I mean, the American public — that today’s news is tomorrow’s history. That good reporters can smell a good story, go out and get it, write it on deadline,  and share it with the world.  Didn’t  Escott and Floyd Mutrux  ever see “The Front Page”?  Don’t they know what great characters reporters make? Geez!

Just sayin’.