Theater Review: 'Million Dollar Quartet,' Northern Stage | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'Million Dollar Quartet,' Northern Stage

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Published August 18, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.


From left: Taylor Isaac Gray, Caleb Hartsfield, Peter Oyloe and Austin Hohnke - COURTESY OF KATA SASVARI
  • Courtesy Of Kata Sasvari
  • From left: Taylor Isaac Gray, Caleb Hartsfield, Peter Oyloe and Austin Hohnke

Drop a quarter in the jukebox that is Million Dollar Quartet, and nearly two hours of foot-stomping, hip-swinging rock and roll pours off the stage. Northern Stage's outdoor production assembles seven top-notch musicians to deliver the restless energy of rockabilly in the 1950s, when dancing itself was like catapulting into a fresh and boundless future.

The musical dramatizes the December night in 1956 when Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley jammed together at Sun Records in Memphis. Largely true to history, the show turns the accidental gathering into an excuse for a concert, as well as a look at each artist's career.

Perkins and his rhythm section — his brother and bass player, Jay, and drummer W.S. "Fluke" Holland — are scheduled to record. Studio owner Sam Phillips gives his newest artist, then-unknown Lewis, a chance to play piano on the session. Presley, who'd left Sun for RCA Records, drops in with a girlfriend, the singer Dyanne. Cash arrives to see Phillips and is soon handed a guitar.

Perkins records his classic-to-be "Matchbox," and the musicians reminisce and riff, sharing gospel tunes and current songs. With unforced "remember when" dialogue, the show sketches the musicians' rise from humble beginnings to setting the course for rock and roll.

Phillips and the artists are all on the brink of career decisions, and, as they play together, they're also testing their plans for the future. Authors Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux lace the songs together by highlighting the turning point each man faces. 

After Phillips' success with Presley, RCA is now wooing the producer. But Phillips wants to stay at the studio he built and sign a new contract with Cash, unaware that Cash is ready to leave for Columbia Records. Perkins may jump ship, too, while Lewis is just starting out, boasting that he'll have a hit with "Great Balls of Fire" before it's even recorded.

The musical reenacts each artist's beginnings, with vignettes that show Presley tentatively trying to imitate crooner Dean Martin, and the Perkins brothers bashfully hoping Phillips will be interested in "Blue Suede Shoes."

Music dominates the evening, and the character sketches place the tunes in context. The musicians run through 24 hit songs to celebrate past triumphs, lightheartedly one-up each other and share the gospel tunes that shaped them.

Million Dollar Quartet acknowledges, though briefly, the cultural appropriation in early rock and roll. Phillips had not only the ear of a genius but the business instincts of an exploiter. He saw white kids dancing to what were then called "Negro records" and realized that white musicians playing something similar would become hits.

Northern Stage producing artistic director Carol Dunne codirected the show with choreographer Kyle Brand. They keep the actor-musicians connecting with each other without breaking the premise of an impromptu gathering in a tiny recording studio. The music gushes out fully polished, but Dunne and Brand make it appear spur of the moment.

The pair, and musical director Taylor Isaac Gray, tell the story with music. The bass player just about pulls "That's All Right" out of Presley, slapping the strings until the rhythm launches the singer into the song. Lewis and Perkins have triplet-note feuds over who can vamp harder. Each performer reveals his musical signature.

Gray also plays Lewis, sketching him as a sparking live wire. He's a natural wonder on the piano, rampaging up and down the keyboard. At the very start of his career, Lewis overflows with self-confidence, and Gray makes him an adorable but insistent gnat buzzing around the studio.

As Presley, Caleb Hartsfield shows the artist's unique combination of vulnerability and swivel-hipped abandon. He sings "Hound Dog" with youthful joy, still dewy-eyed at his own good fortune.

Playing the electric guitarist Perkins, Austin Hohnke can bend a blues note and enliven country with syncopation and fast picking. His riffs move straight to the toe-tapping center of the brain. For all the devil-may-care attitude in a tune like "Let's Have a Party," Hohnke paints Perkins as an artist who knows success may be brief.

Peter Oyloe can't duplicate Cash's otherworldly bass voice or the colossal determination of "I Walk the Line," but he does deliver the singer's big-bottom guitar and captures the heft of "Folsom Prison Blues."

Caitlin Doak plays Dyanne, offering a sizzling "Fever" that expresses the '50s fascination with new sexual freedom.

As Fluke, Jon Rossi pulls so much variety out of a drum kit that each tune seems fresh. He can twirl a drumstick in one hand while keeping the beat with the other and changes musical moods from Caribbean beats to shut-up-and-drive rock propulsion.

Ben Sheppard plays Jay Perkins, vigorously slapping and plucking the strings of an upright bass. Sheppard creates a nonstop groove and makes the instrument into a dance partner.

As Phillips, David Mason conveys the producer's pride in the artists he's launched. He patrols the studio, stepping smartly from the booth to the floor, as eager for the next musical discovery as the young artists are.

Vintage amps line the front of the stage, and Michael Ganio's scenic design captures the clutter of a small recording studio. Lighting designer Travis McHale makes the studio appear like an unspectacular workplace and then pours on concert lighting juice when the musicians perform.

Million Dollar Quartet brings a blast of nostalgia to older audience members, yet this music can make anyone feel young. More concert than play, it's perhaps better performed outdoors on a warm summer night than on an indoor stage. Tunes that once chattered out of tinny transistor radios started decades of guitar-based rock — and still have the power to tug viewers to their feet. 

The original print version of this article was headlined "Go, Cat, Go!"