Million Dollar Quartet
Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ, April 2, 2017
Reviewed by Chip Deffaa for Cabaret Scenes
It’s worth the price of admission just to see newcomer Nat Zegree—a recent graduate of Indiana University—light up the stage in Million Dollar Quartet at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. He steals the show playing Jerry Lee Lewis.
Inspired by actual events, Million Dollar Quartet deals with four noted performers—Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. In real life, all four were stars, and Presley, of course, was the most commanding of them all. But Zegree—who makes as much or more out of the role of Jerry Lee Lewis as anyone I’ve ever seen in the role—is by far the strongest entertainer on Paper Mill’s stage. He’s electric—the only one who’s got real star-power. And he makes the other actors seem, at times, like mere pretenders.
Despite imperfections in casting, this production is well worth seeing. Million Dollar Quartet, as I’ve noted on a number of past occasions, is a well-written show—one of the best of all of the shows out there that are built around pre-existing songs. This musical play by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrix was inspired by one night in late 1956 when Presley, Cash, Perkins, and Lewis gathered at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records recording studio in Memphis. The score features hits of the four, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Memories Are Made of This,” “I Walk the Line,” “That’s All Right,” “Great Balls of Fire.” Good stuff.
The show offers an appealing blend of entertainment, education, and human interest. And production values at Paper Mill—sets, costumes, lighting—are first-rate, comparable to Broadway. Hunter Foster, who played Sam Phillips in the original 2010-2011 Broadway cast and knows this show inside-out, has directed this production. And it’s fun.
But I wish I could say Paper Mill is really giving us the “A Team” of available actors for this show. They’re not. Zegree, as I’ve noted, is sensational. But earlier this season, the Westchester Broadway dinner theater in Elmsford, New York, presented a long-running production of Million Dollar Quartet (also directed by Hunter Foster) that included stronger, more evocative players in the roles of Cash (Sky Seals) and Presley (Ari McKay Wilford) than the actors covering those roles here (Scott Moreau, Alex Boniello). It’s a pity that Seals and McKay could not have been hired for this production. James Barry plays the embittered Carl Perkins credibly.
Paper Mill’s cast includes two fine holdovers from the Westchester Broadway production. I greatly appreciated the warm, solid, and very human portrayal of Sam Phillips by Jason Loughlin. He really owns the role. He was good at Westchester and is even better—deeper—now. He provides a very satisfying foundation for the show. Bligh Voth is all right, once again, in a supporting role as Elvis Presley’s girlfriend-of-the-moment, but the part, as written, isn’t of great consequence.
I liked the show. I had a good time, and I think you will, too. Ideally, though, the four stars on stage, should seem more like stars—should have more presence—and should provide a better balance. Zegree really walks away with this production. It’s been a good long while since I’ve seen a newcomer catch fire like that on stage. I’m glad I witnessed his performance.