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‘Quartet’ portrays musicians of the past

Published: Monday, October 31, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 10:09

Million Dollar Quartet

Courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

"Million Dollar Quartet" tells the story of the impromptu jam session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. It runs at the Benedum Center through Sunday, Nov. 6.

He walked in with the intention of being Elvis and walked out as Johnny Cash instead. It was Derek Keeling's plan for landing a lead role in "Million Dollar Quartet," which is currently playing at Pittsburgh's Benedum Center in the Cultural District.

"I sang a gospel song [for my audition] and our music director asked me how well I could sing," Keeling said in a phone interview on Thursday. "I told him, ‘I can sing as well as you need me to sing' and he asked me, ‘Well play me some Johnny Cash.'"

Keeling prepared an audition to Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" in less than ten minutes thanks to his iPhone and now says that he "couldn't be happier" in the role of Cash.

Named for the 1956 impromptu recordings of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, "Million Dollar Quartet" dramatizes the creation of their jam session, which was recorded on Dec. 4, 1956. The musical opened in 2006 at the Seaside Musical Theatre in Florida and then arrived on Broadway for a year-long run in April 2010 and is told through a combination of songs and flashbacks. The show was nominated for three Tony Awards and won Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical with Levi Kreis' portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis.

"So we go through and each of the guys do their own hits ... and it's a really cool thing because not only are we doing all these songs in the way they were originally intended to be done, but we're doing all the music too," Keeling said. "When you see me playing the guitar, it's really me playing. We are the band in the show."

Chuck Mead, the musical supervisor on the tour, said the fact that all the actors play their own instruments is what brings the full extent of their talent forward.

"You have to find people who not only can emulate the characters, but they have to be able to be musicians too," Mead said in a phone interview on Friday. "It's a great mixture of different kinds of show biz ... It'd be harder to fake it and so we just don't."

Mead went on to explain that bringing the spirit of these artists into the performance is their ultimate goal rather than trying to just copy them or top them.

"You just can't top the originals," Mead said. "What we try and do is just to invoke the same spirit of that music because the very last thing you want to do is go do a bar band version of it ... and so we just wanted to create the spirit and freedom of rock n' roll."

However, Keeling said they still do the music "as it was originally intended."

The show has been on the road now for three weeks and it currently has venues booked around for the country for over a year. Keeling said it is fun to travel from town to town, as opposed to staying in one place all year, but it can also be "grueling" at times.

"Each time you come into a new city you have reintroduce yourself to this new city," Keeling said. "So we get here on a Tuesday, we do press all day ... and next thing you know you're into the weekend and you have two shows a day."

Mead said that he has no worries about reintroducing himself or this show to Pittsburgh. He has been here several times before on his own tours and he says that he and his other band members always had a good crowd when they performed.

Chase Kinney, a senior acting major at Point Park University, says that it's the Cultural District as a whole which brings in the crowds at these shows.

"The theater culture intertwines with the downtown culture," Kinney said on Monday. "The theaters produce excellent works on stage and if that's not it then all the other businesses and restaurants bring their own crowds in."

Keeling's contract runs with the show for a year, but he is not certain whether or not he will stay with the show following the end of his contract. He said he has plans to focus on a new "Johnny Cash-inspired" album that he is currently writing and which he hopes to release in early 2012.

"I think I've gotten to know Johnny Cash through this whole experience, about his vibes and how he's really a story teller," Keeling said. "It's a lot of that which I've tried to embody in these songs that I've been working on."

"Million Dollar Quartet" runs at the Benedum Center until Sunday, Nov. 6. Tickets can be purchased at the theatre box office or online at pgharts.org.

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