Jefferson McDonald as Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet
To play the character of Jerry Lee Lewis you obviously need killer piano-playing chops. Jefferson McDonald who performs as Lewis in The Charlottetown Festival’s Million Dollar Quartet, playing the Homburg Theatre until September 23, has this foundation and more thanks to his years of training in classical piano.
McDonald says his musical upbringing was essential for preparing for this role. “Ideally, you want both strong actors and musicians for this show. If I hadn’t played classical piano as a youth, my hands wouldn’t do what I need them to in this show.”
The American-born actor surely appreciates these details, having played Jerry Lee twice before coming to The Charlottetown Festival. It all began with an audition for Missouri’s Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre. To prepare for this challenging role, McDonald started practicing playing rock ‘n’ roll classic on the piano, which of course included “Great Balls of Fire.” After a successful audition, he was offered the part; he would go on to play Jerry Lee a second time on board the cruise ship the Norwegian Getaway.
McDonald relishes playing for a live audience and he says that Islanders are unique in that they have a great appreciation for the music of the 1950s. “This is a very musical place,” he reflects. “Just wandering around Charlottetown, you’ll hear live music coming from everywhere. On stage, I really feel the audience is invested in our characters and the music we are making.”
What audiences may not know about the Million Dollar Quartet’s storyline is that the play takes place only two weeks after Jerry Lee met record producer Sam Phillips, so a lot of his trademark moves had yet to be discovered, such as his kicking of the piano bench. “During the grand finale of the show, the audience should perceive a shift in the development of the character into a Jerry Lee that we all know. That’s when stuff starts flying,” says McDonald with a laugh.
After playing Jerry Lee three times now, McDonald has picked up some details about the man, such as the reasoning for playing with his right leg jutting out from the piano. “This is typically the foot pianists use the sustain pedal with, but not Jerry Lee. He broke his right hip when he was young and practiced in this position. After healing, he continued to play in this manner.”
McDonald believes that Jerry Lee Lewis was the most eccentric, electrifying and hardest rock and roller of his time. “You couldn’t take your eyes off him. He was a performer in the truest sense and many of our audience members remember his unique style very well, so it’s my job to replicate his performance style while also staying true to the script.”
The Million Dollar Quartet cast also includes Greg Gale, Matthew Lawrence, Edward Murphy, Alicia Toner, and Stephen Guy-McGrath. Additional accompaniment is provided by Trevor Grant and Evan Stewart.
Million Dollar Quartet is directed by Tracey Flye; with musical direction by Bob Foster; sets and costumes from Corey Sincennes; lighting by Michael Walton; and sound design by Peter McBoyle. The original concept and direction is by Floyd Mutrux, with the book by Colin Escott and Mutrux.