In the Devil’s Playground: Million Dollar Quartet at Northern Stage

“That rock and roll music. That ain’t never gonna catch on.” Elvis Presley originally wanted to croon like the 1950s Dean Martin; Johnny Cash preferred to sing gospel. When they scratched their way from their small southern hometowns to Sun Records in Memphis, record producer Sam Phillips had other ideas.

Million Dollar Quartet,” currently onstage at Northern Stage’s outdoor Courtyard Theater, is the story of a single night in 1956 when Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis converged on Sun Records’ recording studio for an informal jam. It’s a high energy trip back in time to when rock and roll was so full of raunch it was forbidden. Even kingmaker Ed Sullivan originally gave it a pass.

David Mason as Phillips provides a narrative voice throughout the play, with a drawl that makes you want to pull up a chair and mine him for stories. Austin Hohnke is Carl Perkins, bruised and eclipsed by Presley. He plays a mean electric guitar like a rock god, occasionally stage-front atop an old-time speaker. Peter Oyloe expertly channels Johnny Cash’s baritone and phrasing, and like Cash, cradles his guitar chest high. A young Presley (Caleb Hartsfield) on stage is a sight to behold. Hartsfield has perfected the sneering lip, the (of course) gyrating hip. Taylor Issac Gray portrays Jerry Lee Lewis, waving a shod foot in the air and mauling that piano for all that he is worth and then some. The cast also includes Jon Rossi as Fluke, with a righteous drum solo and Ben Sheppard as Perkins’ brother Jay. Caitlin Doak is Dyanne, Elvis’s girlfriend of the moment who also sings. Her presence on stage tempers the miasma of testosterone while bringing her own brand of heat.

There is cultural commentary to be found though it’s more of side note to the rockin’ musical numbers. Phillips reveals his original intent to record young Black artists and his subsequent inability to convince radio stations to play their music. Phillips adapted by seeking out white performers, like Presley, who could sing “Black music” for largely white audiences. And early rock and roll was a male preserve. The talented Dyanne gets to hang around with the boys but is never offered a contract. Perhaps the most universal and time-defying theme is the David and Goliath nature of the music business. Phillips is scraping by with his modest Sun Records located in a former auto parts store. Big Music is in Big City with its bigger bucks, luring away the talent. Phillips fights on.

You are here for the music, however. And what music! If you are of a certain age—as most of the audience was—you will revel in the energy and the music of your youth (Long Tall Sally, Blue Suede Shoes, I Hear You Knocking and a couple dozen other much-loved. classics.) For younger people, this is a chance to see rock and roll at its birth, and learn just how cool their parents and grandparents were at one time and maybe even still. Don’t for a moment think you’re going to sit sedately through the evening’s or afternoon’s performance. These talented musician-actors are bringing down the house in the show’s finale. You’re on your feet and you’re shakin’ it like you’re seventeen again.

(Photo, top: Caitlin Doak, Jon Rossi, Austin Hohnke, Caleb Hartsfield, and Peter Oyloe. Photo by Kata Sasvari).

On stage through September 12, 2021 at the Courtyard Stage at Northern Stage in White River Junction, VT. Tickets available online or by calling the box office at 802.296.7000. Get as close to the stage as you can.

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And in case you are wondering . . . Susan B. Apel shuttered a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.