Imagine God as a banjo player, plucking strings as he creates the universe backed by his band angels, including this hot fiddle player named Lucifer. And then, well, all Hell breaks loose. That’s where we begin the story of Johnny & the Devil’s Box, a new musical that’s making its digital premiere this week as part of A.D. Players’s Virtual Metzler New Works Festival.
“We thought it would be cool to include a musical in the series,” A.D. Players Executive Director Jake Speck tells Houstonia. “I’ve been intrigued by this piece for a long time.”
In fact, Speck has known the show’s composer, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman (who also wrote the book and lyrics), for years and has watched the musical's evolution from a half-formed idea to its current iteration. In development since 2015, Devil’s Box, he stresses, still went through the vetting process for the festival. Turns out everyone involved with the new works project was as intrigued by the show as he was.
“It’s important for us that all of the entries to the Metzler New Works Festival are stories that show the intersection of faith and art,” he says. “And Douglas has done that in a truly fantastical way.”
Devil’s Box follows the story of Johnny Baker (Waterbury-Tieman), a killer fiddler living in Georgia (get it?), who’s not afraid to tell anyone who’ll listen that he really is all that. Meanwhile, Johnny’s grandfather worries his cockiness will land him in trouble … which shows up one day in the form of a devilish preacher. Unbeknownst to the folks in Johnny’s town, the preacher really is the Devil—who’s vowed revenge after being kicked out of Heaven for trying to take over the Heavenly band—in disguise.
Anyone with a passing understanding of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” will get the gist. But Speck points out that The Charlie Daniels Band’s famous tune isn’t the origin tale for the story.
“There’s a lot of Appalachian folklore that casts the Devil as a fiddle player, which is how the fiddle came to be called ‘the devil’s box,’” he explains. “The musical uses traditional Appalachian music and storytelling elements. It’s just a fun, fantastical piece.”
Speck says those tuning in for the virtual showing should expect to see crossfades and other transition elements along with the Zoom boxes we’ve come to know in this age of pandemic theater. He’s convinced, however, that audiences will still find something to love in what he believes could one day become a big show.
“It’s rare that you see something that hasn’t been done in some form or another before. That’s why Hamilton blew everybody’s minds,” he says. “Johnny and the Devil’s Box is truly, truly original.”
Thru July 4. Free. Online. More info and registration at adplayers.org.