“Million Dollar Quartet,” playing at Paper Mill Playhouse through April 23, is one of the latest, and most popular, of the spate of “jukebox” musicals that have bloomed like spring flowers in Broadway. On the one hand, we think “isn’t there anything new”—yes, there is: “Waitress” and “Dear Evan Hanson”—while on the other hand, we luxuriate in music so familiar it’s in our blood. The best part about this “Quartet” is the level of musicianship of Every! Single! Person! On stage!
We start in Sun Studios, a down-home working recording studio that has a bit less than state-of-the-art equipment. However, it is in the hands of the estimable Sam Phillips (Jason Loughlin), who is our interlocutor for this tale of love, risk, deception, betrayal, and music that provided the roots for so much of what Americans listen to today.
On December 4, 1956, Carl Perkins (James Barry), his Brother Jay (Sam Weber), and Fluke (David Sonneborn) were laying down some tracks and doing some session work. Sam is pretty excited for a few friends who are dropping by to say how-do for the holidays. Jerry Lee Lewis (Nat Zegree) lets us all know exactly where he’s coming from the very moment he enters. This backwoods wunderkind is going to push everybody’s buttons, yet his energy is undeniable–the largest part of The Killer’s Charm. Elvis Presley (Alex Boniello) drops by with his girlfriend Dyanne (Bligh Voth), who captures Jerry Lee’s attention immediately, even while Elvis, with his quiet humility and thrumming sex appeal, wishes for the one thing he wants most–to work again with Sam. When Johnny Cash (Scott Moreau) makes the scene, the fun begins in earnest!
Barry and Weber were featured in last season’s “Pump Boys and the Dinettes” at Paper Mill and their playing added speed to my feet in getting to the show. Barry’s guitar work and Weber on bass were everything I remembered and more. The truest storytelling is often not in the slavish reproduction to exactly how people may have looked or behaved–this was not an impersonator show–this is a look at what may have been when Sam Phillips took a gamble on holding on to his hottest rising stars, and lost.
The music is the main thing and if you appreciate a great drummer, and the power the drum and bass have together to add color and texture while keeping the beat, this is the show for you. If you enjoy the tight harmonies of country hymns, this is the show for you. If you enjoy little “in” jokes, knowing what we know about where each of these performers ended up, then this is the show for you. Testosterone-driven sparring, egos the size of Montana, and the hidden insecurities that each man’s success may all fall as quickly as it came are continually lurking in the room. But pain makes music better, ironically, and this bittersweet look at one magic night will remain with you for some time to come.
“Million Dollar Quartet” plays, in Millburn, New Jersey through April 23. Get your tickets now at the Box Office or online at www.PaperMill.org
to hear one of the best concerts—and see one of the best musicals—that you’ll experience this year.