How to play — and not impersonate — a legend

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Photo by Melanie Thortis

Actors, from left, Ian Fairlee, Austin Hohnke, Austin Thomas, Austin Wayne Price and Bailey McCall Thomas remake a famous photograph of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Marilyn Evans taken at Sun Studios in 1956.

In Million Dollar Quartet at New Stage Theatre, director Randy Redd challenges actors to key in to the personal connection.

The “Million Dollar Quartet” is Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, who brought together the blues, country and rockabilly of rock ’n’ roll. They were shepherded by Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who brought them together for this famed recording session in Memphis.

The actors/singers/musicians inhabiting these youthful, rising star versions of the rock ’n’ roll pioneers sum up a single quality each keeps in mind for his icon.

“Humble-lidity,” Austin Thomas borrows a word from the script for Elvis Presley. “He’s got this very sweet humbleness about him that I try to keep, and stillness that he has onstage. And then when you see him perform, there’s something that just moves inside of him that kind of bellows out of his voice and his hips.”

For Johnny Cash, yet to explode into super-stardom, “a main theme I try to hold for him is honesty,” says Austin Wayne Price. “I just try to remember to really hold all the things that he held sacred, sacred in the piece.”

In Jerry Lee Lewis, “I knew that the keys to unlocking him were mainly his confidence and his cockiness,” says Ian Fairlee. “He’s the freshest to the business,” excited to meet these stars of the Sun family, “but he also knew, ‘I’m going to go through every one of you!’”

And Carl Perkins? “There’s a yearning,” says Austin Hohnke. “Carl is really the one that’s yearning to get his name out there. He misses his curve a couple of times. He doesn’t quite lock into that path that really jettisons him toward that fame and that stardom.”

The roots music and history at the show’s iheart resonate in Mississippi.

“I feel like there’s no better place to work on it,” says Bailey McCall Thomas, who plays Elvis’ girlfriend, Dyanne, in the show.

Joseph Frost, in the role of Sam Phillips, says, “This is a region that understands … coming from a difficult place and putting the work in, to make dreams happen.”