‘Million Dollar Quartet’ strums and thrums with nostalgia, manic beat

By Liz Keill

MILLBURN, NJ – There really was a meeting of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins on Dec. 4, 1956 at Sun Records in Memphis.   Record producer Sam Phillips took a picture to prove it.

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That is the premise of the rock and roll musical, now at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. The cast is super, especially Nat Zegree as Lewis and Scott Moreau as Cash. Zegree is all over the small upright piano as he manages to play no matter what position he’s in. You can see he’s an ultra high energy guy when he just can’t sit still. Zegree was in “Dear Evan Hansen” at Arena Stage in Washington and directs shows at 54 Below, Birdland and Joe’s Pub, among others.  His “Rockin' Robin” takes off like gangbusters..

Moreau made a Johnny Cash tribute album and has reprised this role from the national tour. He also performed “Johnny Guitar: The Musical” at Cortland Rep.  Moreau reflects the huskiness and dark presence of this timeless singer. When he delivers “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and other hits, you’re transported right back to those days.

The same can be said for Alex Boniello as Elvis Presley.  “Hound Dog” and “Memories are Made of This” capture his rise to fame as well as references to his Hollywood movies. When he describes his initial reception in Las Vegas, he says, “I’ll never play Vegas again.”  Presley is a tough role to fill, with so many impersonators over the years.

James Barry plays Carl Perkins, who reminds the others that he recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” before Elvis took it over. It seems Perkins was on his way to appear on the Perry Como show, but was in a car accident. Then Elvis sang it on the Ed Sullivan Show and suddenly the song belonged to him.

So there are clashes, letdowns and deceptions during this reunion in Memphis. Jason Loughlin as Sam Phillips is terrific – believable in his fighting the big recording companies like RCA and Columbia. He clearly has a knack for spotting talent and knows how to nurture it as well. .  

Bligh Voth is Dyanne, the girlfriend Elvis brings along to this gather. She knows how to put a song across. Her rendition of “Fever,” which Peggy Lee made famous, is terrific and she follows that up with “I Hear You Knockin’.”   Voth also displays a tender, humane quality  that helps to center the action and subdue some of the antics.

Sam Weber as Brother Jay has a mean way with a bass viol, often treating it like a guitar. David Sonneborn as Fluke adds more background music with drums and various instruments. The entire play moves like fireworks and the final number is tremendous when they all come out in sparkling tuxedo jackets and sing those final, unforgettable numbers.

The audience was having a grand old time on opening night and that is sure to continue during the run of “Million Dollar Quartet.” The musical continues through April 23. For tickets, call 973-376-4343 or visit PaperMill.org.