Growing up in Huntington Beach, actor Armando Gutierrez recalls basking in the classic rock jam sessions led by his father and other professional musicians.
“He was definitely in the scene of Los Angeles,” Gutierrez said of his father, who played drums in bands that opened for such rock stars as Warren Zevon and Cheap Trick.
“The memories I have is as early as maybe 10 or 11 and he would always have other musician friends over just playing songs they loved,” Gutierrez told City News Service. “A lot of that was Joe Cocker, the Beatles, Sam Cooke, the Rolling Stones — a lot of these classic rock songs… and that definitely inspired me to continue to play music.”
Now Gutierrez gets to indulge in his dual loves of music and acting when he plays Carl Perkins in South Coast Repertory’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet,” which debuts Saturday and continues through Aug. 21.
“I grew up in Huntington Beach, but I’m a New Yorker now and I’ve been in New York for the last 13 years,” Gutierrez said. “So this has been a fantastic kind of homecoming to do theater as a career and to be working with the great people at South Coast Rep.”
About four years ago, Gutierrez played Perkins in a mini-version of the production at a theater in the Catskills in upstate New York.
“So it’s really fun to dive back into it,” Gutierrez said.
The show’s director James Moye said the theater company wanted more “color blind” casting for the production, so in addition to Gutierrez playing Perkins, the part of uber producer Sam Phillips is played by Corey Jones, who is Black.
The show revolves around the day Dec. 4, 1956, when Phillips orchestrated a congregation of Elvis Presley, Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. The four, who were at different stages of their careers at that point, jammed for hours just as rock ‘n’ roll was taking off.
The Sun Sessions meeting has become a part of rock ‘n’ roll’s mythology, so it allows for more poetic license with the casting, Moye said.
“It’s a universal theme,” Moye said. “It really has nothing to do with color — the only color that matters is green being a battle between artists and producers getting paid. It can be a country label or and R&B label and it’s going to be similar conflict.”
Some younger visitors may see echoes of the Beatles in the “Get Back” film.
“These stories are universal,” Gutierrez said. “They just happen to be taken from real guys — like Elivs Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis — but it doesn’t limit what their story was. They all came from nothing and had a drive to use their art as a vehicle to tell their story, which is always great in musicals and plays.”
Gutierrez also noted how popular rockabilly and rock in general has been through the years in the Latino community.
“Whether it’s rockabilly or rock ‘n’ roll it’s always had this huge presence in the Latino community,” Gutierrez said. “Anytime I visit relatives down in Mexico there has always been this resonance toward rock ‘n’ roll music. I don’t know if it’s the sonic quality or how it came to be as sort of this angsty release of emotion that rock ‘n’ roll had in its birth in the 1950s. But there’s something about it that digs into Latinos.”
Moye also noted how the birth of rock ‘n’ roll also came as the dawning of the civil rights movement and represented the intersection of white and Black popular music of the time.
“With what was going on in Memphis at the time there was so much interest from white kids and the people playing race music and so much of the African-American R&B coming out of Beale Street,” Moye said. “And the mix of country sounds and R&B sounds makes a new sound — rock ‘n’ roll… It was an area that brought these storytellers out of their small town existences in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi and helped them create this art form that has revolutionized the world. And it mirrored what was going on with the civil rights movement. It definitely changed the culture in such great ways — the importance of that can’t be overstated, especially with what Sam was doing at the time. These were very white producers willing to record Black artists.”
For Moye, the show at the Mission also features it’s full-circle moments as he has starred in the Broadway production as Sam Phillips, which eventually led him to the director’s chair.
This time, however, there’s a twist. They had to stage it outdoors at the Mission. One challenge is they cannot have blackout moments so actors can come in and off stage.
“But that imagery outside is really just exciting and fun and also has the music festival atmosphere of being outside,” Moye said.
After the play, the band plays a concert, Moye said.
Casting the production also has its challenges because it needs more than just actors, Moye said.
“Finding someone who can pull it off as an actor and be the musician who can play piano like Jerry Lee and play guitar like Carl Perkins is a real challenge,” Moye said.