You can’t imagine a hotter entertainment figure than Elvis Presley in December 1956. That was the year, after all, that he had two No. 1 albums and five No. 1 singles; attracted the most television viewers in history, to that point, with his first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; and starred in his first movie, “Love Me Tender.”
The reverberations of what happened to Elvis Presley in 1956 continued to be felt in pop culture for decades. So you might think that he would be the central figure in “Million Dollar Quartet,” a jukebox musical very loosely based on the events of Dec. 4, 1956, when Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins spent some time together at Sun Records’ studio in Memphis.
You would be wrong. The central figure of “Million Dollar Quartet” — which was on Broadway in 2010 and 2011, and is currently being presented at the Paper Mill Playhouse — is Sam Phillips (played at the Paper Mill by Jason Loughlin), Sun’s visionary owner, who discovered each of the four.
Book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux underscore the point by having Presley (Alex Boniello) call Phillips, in a toast, “the father of rock ‘n’ roll.” Phillips calls the four musicians “my boys.”
So okay, Presley has to be the central musical figure in the musical, right?
No, that would be Jerry Lee Lewis (Nat Zegree) — a near-unknown on Dec. 4, 1956, but in this play a jittery, clownish, piano-pounding wildman who goes way over the top so routinely he draws everyone’s attention to himself, almost nonstop. He also blatantly flirts with Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne (Bligh Voth) and calls Elvis “Presley boy,” while Elvis smirks and sneers but never really puts Lewis in his place.
So “Million Dollar Quartet” doesn’t have the ring of truth. But it’s still quite entertaining, due largely to Zegree, who sings and plays well, but impresses even more on an athletic level, hopping all over the studio and playing his 88 keys from every angle imaginable, and with lots of different body parts (including his nose).
The central drama of the play has to do with whether Phillips will be able to re-sign Cash (Scott Moreau) — who had his breakthrough year in 1956, too — before Cash can move to another label, as Presley has already done.
Of the four “quartet” members, Moreau offers the most uncanny impersonation, getting’s Cash voice precisely right. The fourth member of the quartet, Carl Perkins (James Barry), isn’t really fleshed out as a character. But Perkins is the lead guitarist in the foursome (really, a sextet, since a bassist and drummer back them on most numbers), and Barry has the instrumental chops to make him the show’s musical star.
The song list, though only occasionally reflecting what was actually played at Sun on Dec. 4, 1956, includes signature hits by all artists (“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog,” “I Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire” etc.) while also covering tunes associated with other artists (Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” for instance) and nodding to rock’s roots in gospel (“Down by the Riverside,” “I Shall Not Be Moved”), blues (“My Babe”) and country (“Sixteen Tons”).
It’s hard to go wrong with songs like that, and “Million Dollar Quartet” is ultimately — like most jukebox musical — solid enough on a musical level. But it lacks the kind of gripping story that could really make it transcendent.
“Million Dollar Quartet” will be at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through April 23; visit papermill.org.
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I saw the original when it moved Off Broadway. The review is very accurate–very good songs; surprisingly weak book, given the ample material which could have been used to make it better.