December 4, 1956 was a day when a chance meeting became a legendary moment in rock and roll history. That day, fate brought together Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins for the first and only time, to the Sun Records studio in Memphis, TN.
Million Dollar Quartet, the musical, now playing at the Paper Mill Play House takes you back to that day, via a musical journey that includes “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Walk the Line,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Matchbox,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog” and more.
Sun owner Carl Phillips, who was overseeing a recording session for Perkins (played by James Barry who also serves as musical director), had invited his newly signed artist Jerry Lee Lewis to play keys at the session. What happens next was four major artists — a Million Dollar Quartet — performing in a legendary jam session.
It seems obvious, but sitting in the audience, it’s sometimes hard to believe that the performers are acting and also playing all the music you hear during the musical. This is especially true when you see the antics that show-stealer Nat Zegree (who plays Jerry Lee Lewis, rock & roll’s first great wild man) pulls off, everything from playing piano with his hands behind his back to playing blindfolded. Also adept at some musical gymnastics is Sam Weber, who plays Carl Perkins’ brother Jay. Weber, playing the upright bass, wows the audience, not only with his playing, but his ability to lift the huge bass over his head and play.
Besides being amazing on the piano, Zegree offers comedy relief throughout the show, which at times, hits wistful notes when we learn of Carl Perkins’ disappointment at having Elvis Presley (played by Alex Boniello) perform his Blue Suede Shoes on national TV and how radio stations thought Perkins was covering Presley, rather than the other way around.
There’s a lot of music history and background that rock and roll fans will love. The plot itself, which is expanded and embellished beyond the actual events of the day, serves to segue from one musical moment to the next.
Lewis is Phillip’s new artist, but for Presley and Johnny Cash (played by Scott Moreau who brings Cash’s big, bold vocals to life), there are conflicted feelings about leaving Sun Records. Balancing out the cast is Dyanne, Presley’s girlfriend, played by Bligh Voth, the only female in the all-male cast, who brings sizzle to the show in her rendition of “Fever.”
And after a final, magnetic performance by all four members of the quartet, we see the classic photo that captured rock n’ roll’s moment in time projected onto the set and leave feeling as though we had been there, too.
Million Dollar Quartet at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn.
Tickets: $51-$123; now through April 23.