Northern Stage’s Courtyard Theater could easily have been mistaken for a rock concert Saturday evening. The sounds brought back memories of the golden age of rock ’n’ roll — and some of the voices, as well as their songs were awfully familiar.
Only the enthusiastic and occasionally raucous crowd was unexpected — ranging in age from teens to retirement community material.
It was opening night at Northern Stage’s spectacular production of “Million Dollar Quartet,” celebrating a great moment in rock ’n’ roll history. It was Dec. 4, 1956, when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash found themselves in an unplanned jam session at Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.
The event was not only taped, it was commercially released in 1981, and Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux dramatized it in a show that opened on Broadway 2010. More than just a series of songs by the young rock legends, it incorporated issues between each other — some imagined, some real — and Sun Records producer Sam Phillips.
Northern Stage turned its outdoor Courtyard Theater behind the Barrette Center for the Arts into the 1956 Sun Records recording studio. And while the members of the excellent weren’t impersonators, they looked a little bit, and sounded a lot like their familiar roles.
Despite a few tender moments, the 90-minute show (without intermission) was effervescent from beginning to end. A good part of the drive came from the wild man of Taylor Isaac Gray’s Jerry Lee Lewis. Gray, also the show’s music director, more than tickled the ivories, he ponded them with flair (and accuracy) — representing Sun’s new star.
The two who had to represent the most familiar stars were amazingly successful. Caleb Hatsfield almost looked like the young Elvis, and also was able to sing like up-and-coming star, spirit, vocal nuances and all. Peter Oyloe delivered Johnny Cash with a convincing rich sound and gravitas.
Austin Hohnke’s Carl Perkins had nearly the drive vocally as Jerry Lee Lewis did on piano, and sang with style. Caitlin Doak proved a sexy and sultry singer, as well as an enthusiastic rocker, as Presley’s (fictitious) girlfriend Dyanne.
They were all ably backed up by Fluke (Jon Rossi) on drums and Perkins’ brother Jay (Benn Sheppard) on bass. Musically it was a rockin’ good time.
All proved good actors as well, but there was only one real dramatic role. Sam Phillips was given real dimension in a powerful performance as the exasperated record producer by David Mason.
This excellent production was directed by Carol Dunne, Northern Stage’s artistic director, and Kyle Brand, also the imaginative choreographer. Michael Ganio created the quasi-realistic Sun studio set, which was dramatically lit by Travis McHale. Period costumes — the tacky ‘50s — were by Hunter Kaczorowski, and sound design was by Mike Tracey.
Northern Stage’s “Million Dollar Quartet” is more than a well-performed medley of songs by four rock ’n’ roll legends, it give a glimpse of who they were. And it was a heck of a lot of fun.