Sunday, November 27, 2016

Behind the Scenes of FST's "Million Dollar Quartet" -- Part 2

Cast of Million Dollar Quartet on set at Florida Studio Theatre
Another Behind the Scenes class at Florida Studio Theatre has drawn to a close, and I'm already missing my weekly fix learning about getting a production from the page to the stage. Each session is as different as the plays themselves. And while I thoroughly enjoyed last season's series on "Outside Mullingar" and "Alabama Story," the energy and terrific music of "Million Dollar Quartet" made it the most fun so far.

The class culminates with a panel discussion with the actors. It's not mandatory for the cast to attend, so the fact they do is indicative of their respect for FST's process. We talked with the MDQ cast for 90 minutes as they shared their journeys both on and off the stage.

Ben Williams in foreground as Carl Perkins
Director (and Behind the Scenes leader) Jason Cannon kicked off the discussion by asking what their largest obstacles and juiciest discoveries were.  Ben Williams, who plays Carl Perkins, jumped in first.  His discovery had occurred the previous night when he played his most technically accurate performance since the show opened. He was a bit surprised that he didn't feel it was his best show.

"There's so much magic in the show about these icons," he said. "We don't have to be perfect so much as perfectly connected."  His comment recalled Sam Phillips' own philosophy of "perfect imperfection."

Joe Boover as Elvis on vocals
Joe Boover came to his role as Elvis directly from playing the part in another production of "Million Dollar Quartet."  For him, the greatest challenge was letting himself discover the role in a fresh way with his new cast members.  "I had to give into being present with these people and create the show with them," he said.

A lot was said about Jason and FST's approach to the show. Theaters often focus almost exclusively on the music instead of delving into the characters. The result is a cast filled with impersonators rather than actors. FST wants audiences to both enjoy themselves and come away with a better understanding of these young musicians on the cusp of making it big.

Brandyn Day on piano (literally) as Jerry Lee Lewis
Brandyn Day, who plays Jerry Lee Lewis, said he's auditioned unsuccessfully many times for the role. The feedback he's received has been either that he doesn't play the piano well enough (what???!!!!) or that he wasn't "cartoonish" enough. He admits to freaking out a bit when Jason specifically commented at the read-through that he didn't want the characters to be played as cartoons.

As the rehearsal process progressed, you could see Brandyn taking a step back as he settled into his still-flamboyant portrayal of Lewis. (Having said this, he cracked the lid of the piano when he jumped on it during the dress rehearsal. Luckily, the piano is bolted down onstage to protect against injury to the performer.)

Joe Boover and Joe Casey
Joe Casey rounds out the quartet as Johnny Cash. (When he introduced himself at the read-through, his voice resonated through the studio.) Not surprisingly, Cash's "Walk the Line" is one of the songs in the show. Jason shared the significance of the song in the context of the musical with us, something the cast had discussed during their table work. Cash, who's informed Sam Phillips that he's leaving Sun Records, is reminding him of the good times they had together making the hit. He's giving Jerry Lee advice to not be out of control. He's wishing Elvis and his new girlfriend good luck in their relationship. And he's reminding Carl of the fun they had cutting the record.  While the audience is unlikely to catch these nuances as they enjoy the song, it gives more depth to the performance. 

I could go on and on sharing what we learned. The set, for instance, was designed after study of the museum which Sun Records has become. A conscious decision was made to include posters promoting black musicians such as BB King to recall their contributions to the music made by the quartet. The checkerboard floor fades to black to facilitate the ability of Sam Phillips to step into the past as he tells how he met each of the singers. The door is painted to appear dirty around the knob where people would have touched it over the years.  The attention to detail is impressive.

The bottom line is that the class was a blast and the show is too. "Million Dollar Quartet" runs at Florida Studio Theatre through January 8th.  Go see it! 

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