Suppose for a moment that you went to a play and a rock concert broke out. That’s the kind of energy and serendipity the creative team behind “Million Dollar Quartet” is working hard to capture.
Heritage Theatre Festival’s new season will begin with a preview of “Million Dollar Quartet” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Culbreth Theatre at the University of Virginia; opening night starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
The musical, with book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux and original concept and direction by Mutrux, sweeps audience members back six decades to an epic jam session by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios. Heritage’s audiences will see a mix of road-tested portrayals and fresh interpretations.
“I think, because this show has such specific needs — the four main characters need to look and sound like the people they’re portraying and need to play their own instruments — there has been this small group of people that have been groomed to do these characters over and over,” director Tim Seib said.
Heritage found a moment of serendipity of its own in being able to work with several performers and directors from the recent national tour. Seib, who served as director for the national tour, will be teaming up again with Jon Rossi, the tour’s musical director. Local audiences will see several cast members reprising their national tour roles — Austin Hohnke as Perkins, Peter Oyloe as Cash and Trevor Dorner, the tour’s Lewis understudy, as The Killer; also in the cast will be Jacob Barton as Presley, Taylor Kraft as Dyanne and Adam Poole as Phillips.
“No one knows the music of this show better than Jon Rossi,” Seib said. Rossi also plays the role of Fluke, the drummer who backs up the star-studded quartet; Bill Morley will portray bass player Brother Jay.
There’s no backup band, because it’s important to the energy of the show, and the lightning-in-a-bottle moment that inspired it, for the famous figures to be playing the rockabilly, rock and country hits on their own instruments. That means Heritage audiences will hear Hohnke mainly on electric guitar and sometimes on acoustic guitar; Oyloe and Barton will play acoustic guitars, and Dorner will add high-energy piano and rhythmic backing.
And although the national tour veterans are comfortable in their roles and familiar with the musical, Heritage’s production marks the first time they’re all presenting the show together.
“It has this amazing sense of fresh newness of everyone doing this together for the first time,” Seib said.
There’s plenty of excitement in the Drama Building to go around. “Everyone was very hungry for the kind of production it could be,” said Seib, who relishes the opportunity to “really make it our own.
“It feels like such a luxury for us to have this rehearsal time. Some of us have had to put this show up in as little as four days,” he said.
Heritage’s creative team includes scenic designer Batul Rizvi, costume designer Anna Grywalski and lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy. Having the creative team and cast working in close proximity makes it easy to keep up with adjustments well ahead of tech week.
“There is a fantastic production team in place, in house, working every day,” Seib said. “That is so nice, and also a little rare, to step out of a rehearsal for a 10-minute break and step into the scene shop or the paint shop and step back into rehearsal.
“I feel like everyone, both on the production team and in the cast, is on the same page. It’s setting us up for success.”
And speaking of success, there’s no need to manufacture a plot to string the hit songs together. The four famous musicians already were on different career trajectories heading into their Dec. 4, 1956, jam session at Sun, which adds an organic sense of drama and a few moments of tension.
“It’s really well crafted,” Seib said. “The music is built into the plot, so it’s not just magically happening, the way it often does in musical theater.
“It also doesn’t get bogged down in a plot where you’re thinking, ‘Oh, just play the music.’ It has a nice, energetic sort of rock-show feel and a backstory.”
The backstory is grounded in behind-the-scenes relationships, and even a few conflicts, among the four music legends. Perkins, for example, is not pleased that Presley has covered Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and turned it into a hit for himself.
“You get these little insights like that that you might not have known,” the director said. “It’s exciting to have Carl Perkins in there because he was so important to that time period.”
Presley brought a date to the studio that evening, and the character of Dyanne brings a bit of a fan’s perspective.
“I see her as the audience’s eyes and ears in this room,” Seib said. “She’s the first to grab a tambourine and sing along.”
Seib hopes audience members will enjoy a sense of discovery.
“You come in expecting to go on a theatrical journey,” he said. “You just showed up and found a rock concert you weren’t expecting.
“It can very much feel like it’s being generated at that moment. The spontaneity of that moment is the thing we rehearse the most.”