Jacob Barton and Taylor Kraft say the show “Million Dollar Quartet,” about a group of music icons meeting in a Memphis, Tennessee, recording studio, was partially responsible for taking their relationship to a new level.
Together and separately, in the roles of Elvis Presley and his friend, Dyanne, Barton and Kraft have performed in several regional productions and a national tour of the show.
The tour was idled in March by the COVID-19 pandemic, as were the acting careers of this Chicago-based married couple who met in a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in their native North Carolina.
Then, a few weeks ago, they were asked to step into their familiar roles again in “Million Dollar Quartet,” which opens tonight at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre.
“I did the show about five years ago, and then about a year and a half ago, he began doing the show,” Kraft says. “And then, we just suddenly started doing it together.”
The show celebrates the real-life events of Dec. 4, 1956, when Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis met in producer Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, for an impromptu jam session and a famous photograph.
The show is filled with well-known early rock ’n’ roll songs including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Long Tall Sally,” “I Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Hound Dog,” with the actors portraying the music icons playing their own instruments.
“Dyanne is based on a real-life girlfriend of Elvis,” Kraft says, “and we use the term girlfriend quite loosely, because they were never romantically involved.”
Presley had only known Marilyn Evans — the real-life inspiration for Dyanne — for two weeks, and asked her to accompany him to Memphis, Barton says.
“Dyanne comes with Elvis that night and enjoys every minute of it,” Kraft says.
“Without her coming to the studio, none of the guys would actually talk about their feelings,” Barton says. “She’s actually what makes the plot happen.”
Kraft and Barton both had a connection to the music they’re performing in the show.
“I grew up with this kind of music my whole life,” says Barton, who was nicknamed “Elvis” as a kid for his lanky frame and wavy hair. “My dad was really into this kind of music.”
“Especially coming from North Carolina, with the Southern roots that we do have, Johnny Cash was the biggest icon in my family’s discography,” Kraft says.
With its smallish cast, “Million Dollar Quartet” is an appropriate show for the Dutch Apple — which last presented the show in 2016 — to revive in these pandemic times.
The singers are all at separate microphones, or at their instruments, that are at least 6 feet apart, says Jon Rossi, the show’s musical director and drummer.
Actors wear clear face shields on stage when they’re not at the microphones, Rossi says, and have Plexiglass shields between their mics and the audience.
There are a few other adjustments.
“We had to cut out handshakes, which is a big thing in this script, because of the time period ... and this bunch of guys,” Barton says.
Barton says because he and Kraft are married — their wedding fell between national tour dates in January — they have some extra freedom. “It’s nice not to have to worry about that 6-feet distance ... and we can have those moments of intimacy on stage and not have the audience worried in any kind of way.”
Five years ago, Rossi joined the national tour of “Million Dollar Quartet,” produced by Prather Productions — the Dutch Apple’s parent company — “and I’ve not been off it for very long since.
“I do a lot of my own arrangements for the show now,” Rossi says, “and I also play the drums for all of it, which is still my favorite part.”
While touring with the show for so long, Rossi notes he has gotten to know family members of Lewis, Perkins and Phillips. He has sat on the bed Presley slept in as a boy in Tupelo, Mississippi.
And he has “met and hung out with” the real person he plays in the show — W.S. “Fluke” Holland, Johnny Cash’s drummer.
“Having those moments and talking to those people, and then bringing that to the show, is not only really amazing ... but it always helps me remember what they said and to honor what they were doing” as musicians.
For example, Rossi says, Lewis played the piano fast by 1950s standards. But audiences used to the even-faster tempo music in the ’60s and beyond might not perceive that.
“I always try to honor what the musicians originally did, mixed with (audiences’) memory of what the music was,” Rossi says. “We need to show that (Lewis) was flying on the piano, doing something totally new.”
Rossi feels part of his job as musical director is to make everyone in the cast feel comfortable amid COVID-19 safety protocols.
That’s easier, he notes, since the cast is quarantining together in the same condo complex in the area, and most of the cast has worked together with the touring show before.
“We trust each other to quarantine and be careful,” Rossi says.
Kraft and Barton say they know they’re fortunate to be working when so many other theater professionals are not.
“We have lots of friends in the theater industry, and not everybody has been this lucky,” Barton says.
“I’m extremely grateful,” Kraft adds. “There are definitely days where I say, ‘why me?’ (when there are) all these people who are so amazingly talented” and unemployed.
“I haven’t been able to play the drums with other people since the first week of March,” Rossi says. “I can’t believe I’m doing theater again.”
“The most wonderful experience about this show is seeing (the audience) go back to that time and relive a part of their lives that makes them the most happy and the most joyful,” Barton says.
“I hope that they have 90 minutes of peace from everything that’s happening in the world,” Kraft says. “I hope that for the 90 minutes we’re on stage, they can forget their worries.
“I hope the audience comes away dancing — 6 feet apart” Kraft adds.