By Graham Schiltz
Ten days after their first meeting, the cast members of Million Dollar Quartet are attending their first start-to-finish rehearsal. It’s described to me as a “stumble through,” but, to an outsider, that doesn’t seem to give the people on stage enough credit. There’s a buzz of excitement as actors fill the room with a mixture of Southern accents and Sun Records hits, united by a looming deadline: opening night on June 27.
Heritage Theatre Festival, sponsored by the University of Virginia, has put on productions almost every summer since 1974. For 10 weeks, it brings together thespian professionals and amateurs, locals and out-of-towners, plus more than 100 crew members. But right now, only actors command the room’s attention.
Million Dollar Quartet chronicles a jam session among four of music’s biggest stars, whose careers were launched by Sun Records: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. Their paths cross in the label’s studio in Memphis, Tennessee, and as the actors perform a mixture of original songs and covers, the individual stories of the legendary musicians unfold.
The narrator is Sun Records executive Sam Phillips, played by Adam Poole, a graduate theater student at UNC Chapel Hill. He’s the only cast member new to the production—the others have performed in the play before, some more than 100 times. Through extensive research, diligent rehearsal, and help from his co-stars, Poole says he’s settled quickly into the role, allowing more time to focus on perfecting the play.
“It allows us to get more specific, have more detail, and really tell the story with authenticity and care,” Poole says. ”Every day we dive a little bit deeper into these characters.”
Also in attendance is HTF’s ringleader. In 2017, after a 20-year journey, Jenny Wales became artistic director for Heritage Theatre Festival, the same place she received her first paid theater gig as a drama student at UVA. In between, she received an MFA from Alabama Shakespeare Festival, acted in New York City, and helped grow UNC-Chapel Hill’s PlayMakers Repertory Company in the same role she’s in now.
Wales is responsible for choosing the plays, casting, and working alongside directors. After a decade in theater, this is where she feels most comfortable. “It was kind of a leap. What I had known was performing,” Wales says. “Once I made that jump, for me it was like, ‘Oh, this is what I think I’m supposed to be doing.’”
Watching a production come together is a homecoming of sorts for Wales. “It’s kind of this beautiful, cyclical thing,” she says. “To have the opportunity to come back and give back to an organization and a community that had given me so much was singular.”
As the actors work through their parts, banter fills in for awkward pauses and mistakes—when Poole trips over a cord heading off stage, one of the cast members jokes, “Clean up your studio!” The actors giggle at each other, excited to see the script come together for the first time.
It’s only two weeks until the first performance. When asked if she ever has doubts that the production will come together, Wales grins.
“Sure, there are times when you think, ‘I don’t know how we’re gonna do it,’ but it’s also the thing that makes it the most thrilling,” she says. “We’re all here united for those 10 weeks, and we’re gonna make it happen.”
Million Dollar Quartet, opening on June 28, stars Peter Oyloe as Johnny Cash, Austin Hohnke as Carl Perkins, Jacob Barton as Elvis Presley, and Trevor Dorner as Jerry Lee Lewis.