Randy Redd leaned forward, sharply attuned to the action before him, even as Folsom Prison Blues — live and loud — worked its magic on all the other bodies in the room. At New Stage Theatre, rehearsals for Million Dollar Quartet are in full swing with the vigor of young rock ’n’ roll and its story of the famed recording session that brought together Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
New Stage Theatre presents the hit musical May 30 through June 18.
Redd is again with the show that has latched onto his life since he joined the original Broadway cast toward the end of its run in New York City. Then, he played Jerry Lee Lewis. With it now, he’s the director and he’s back in Mississippi, birthplace of America’s music, and also of Randy Redd.
Redd grew up in Brookhaven and, until college, had the idea he would be a classical pianist. Parents Gordon and Mary Lu Redd still live in Brookhaven.
Two piano lessons a week with Fannie Phillips fed that early ambition. On Saturdays, “I would stay and have lunch with Miss Fannie and her husband, and I got all of my musical education that way,” he says, soaking up stories of her tours as a classical pianist.
He had an eye for Juilliard, but at the last second opted for “a more college experience” at Florida State University. There, the piano student got interested in theater, too, and stayed longer to add that major. He had done a senior play back at Brookhaven High but didn’t know it could be a living.
“The more I look back and think about it, I was always putting on shows when I was a kid,” he says. “But not with this in mind.”
Redd moved to New York in 1990, where his first foray on stage was Smoke on the Mountain. In it, he played piano, mandolin, upright bass, accordion and violin, which he had to learn for the show. He later directed Smoke on the Mountain at New Stage Theatre. That was 20 years ago.
Redd’s Broadway and Off-Broadway credits also include Parade, directed by Harold Prince, Ring of Fire, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves, Pump Boys & Dinettes, Allegro, The View Upstairs. Plus, “lots and lots of Million Dollar Quartet in my life,” he says of playing Jerry Lee Lewis on Broadway, Off-Broadway, several stops on the tour and special events. One of his last performances with the show was New Year’s Eve in Times Square in 2015.
“I certainly never saw myself playing a rock ’n’ roll legend, because I grew up playing Bach and Rachmaninoff,” he says.
Amused, he thinks back to the tune Miss Fannie taught him, Wildcat Boogie, once featured on a WAPT spotlight on Brookhaven.
“I played The Minute Waltz by Chopin and this song, Wildcat Boogie, in a baby blue leisure suit. I was 11 or 12? Nuts!”
Redd handpicked the cast for the New Stage production, with auditions in New York and Jackson, plus plenty of video submissions. He and New Stage artistic director Francine Thomas Reynolds made lists of each role and the actors who auditioned — lists that were each 25 to 30 guys deep.
“I just wouldn’t settle until I had the right cast.
“As you can imagine, it’s tricky to find four actor/singer/musicians who are right for these roles, but will also,” he chuckles, “play well with others.”
The cast, most of them veterans of this show, includes Austin Thomas as Elvis Presley, Austin Wayne Price as Johnny Cash, Ian Fairlee as Jerry Lee Lewis and Austin Hohnke as Carl Perkins. All are from New York City and appear through the courtesy of the Actors’ Equity Association. Joseph Frost of Jackson plays Sam Phillips and Bailey McCall Thomas (Austin Thomas’ wife) plays Dyanne; local musicians, drummer Paul Hiendl and bassist Steve Watson, are also in the show.
Redd says Million Dollar Quartet can have a tendency to turn into “this sort of circus where you show off the rock ’n’ roll icons, instead of what the story’s about,” but not here. “We look at them as people.
“There’s a real story here, and it’s the story of a man who captured all of these artists on records. … It’s really Sam Phillips’ story, told through these guys that had a lot of success.”
The musical focuses on the first and only time these young bucks, not yet legends, came together for a famed recording session Dec. 4, 1956, at Sun Records in Memphis. Its score of rock hits includes Blue Suede Shoes, Fever, That’s All Right, Great Balls of Fire, Walk the Line, Hound Dog and more.
Taped to the wall, like touchstones, just over Redd’s shoulder, are two photocopies of the historic image from that session, with Cash, Lewis, Perkins and Presley gathered around a piano and a woman (Presley’s girlfriend, named Dyanne in the show) perched on top.
In Mississippi, the story taps into regional roots and layers. The show embraces and honors those historical connections, Redd says, such as songs sourced from blues musicians and made famous by the rock ’n’ rollers. For him, the personal connections — growing up here, with all this music, in the church, even remembering the day Presley died and how it affected his parents — weigh in as well.
“He makes it real,” Fairlee says of Redd.
“There’s an earthiness to what I feel Randy brings to this,” Thomas says.
It comes full circle for Redd, in addition to the Mississippi homecoming charms of family, food, a slower pace.
“It’s one thing if I come home for Christmas,” he says. “It’s a very different thing when I get to come home and do the thing that I went away to do, you know?
“You get to reconnect the dots. … We get to retrace our own stories, especially working on this show, and how all of my life led to this show. And I get to bring this thing home.”
Performances of “Million Dollar Quartet” are sold out through June 11. New Stage Theatre has extended its run with additional shows at 7:30 p.m. June 13-17 and 2 p.m. June 18 at the theater, 1100 Carlisle St., in Jackson. Tickets are $35, with discounts available for students, senior citizens and groups, through the theater box office, 601-948-3531 or www.newstagetheatre.com. The box office, closed through Monday for the Memorial Day weekend, will reopen at 10 a.m. Tuesday.