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By Brian Robin

Billy Rude Eats Up His Role With Relish

Playing the high-energy Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet six nights a week is a physically demanding job. But being that Billy Rude is a foodie, he enjoys fueling up for his performance at San Juan Capistrano's array of Mexican restaurants.

“I eat a lot of food because I burn between 5,000 and 6,000 calories every time I’m up there,” he said. “It’s a good thing my bones are made of rubber.”

Flexibility aside, his stage presence as the immature musical prodigy in Outside SCR’s popular production is electric. Rude channels that electricity into a character that combines the emotional maturity of a recalcitrant teenager with musical dynamism-meets-athleticism that is jaw-dropping.

You mean someone plays the piano like this? Combining a musician’s artistry with a gymnast’s athleticism? Which, by the way, Rude has in his expansive toolkit. He’s had tumbling training.

“Jerry, in essence, is the wild child,” Rude said. “That’s why the show opens up with him singing “Real Wild Child.” You need no other introduction for what kind of guy he was. This is a dramatized story, but I venture a guess to say Jerry’s wild antics are probably the least dramatized part of the telling. He really was that kind of a guy.”

Rude captures Lewis with a feral impishness, a phrase that cracked him up when he heard it. One moment, he’s leering at Michelle Lauto’s Dyanne. The next, he’s kissing up to Corey Jones’ Sam Phillips—all the while matter-of-factly informing him that Sun Records’ next star is sitting right here at the piano. Then, in the blink of an eye, he’s pounding piano keys with fingers, feet and tush, smiling at the audience, playfully inviting them into the story with a sly grin.

“His voice is volcanic, and his piano skills are extraordinary,” wrote BroadwayWorld’s Jonas Schwartz-Owen.

Those skills came at an early age. Rude began playing the piano when he was 6. Unlike Lewis, he wasn’t quite self-taught. But like Lewis, he was a natural.

“I started learning music as a language and I always knew at a young age that I had a relationship with music. I was drawn to it,” he said. “We had a parent/teacher conference after a recital several years into my lessons, after which my teacher told my parents, ‘When I sit down with him and play with him, he knows the music and he’s playing it, but he’s not reading the page. He’s playing it by ear. He’s kind of cheating.’”

Rude stopped taking formal lessons after his freshman year of high school, something he said allowed him to dive into theatre, rather than become purely a musician “playing these songs in a bar,” as he said.

If Rude makes the difficult job of playing Lewis look natural, well, that’s no accident. He first played the role before he graduated from the Roosevelt University Conservatory. He was looking for summer work and found the Maples Repertory Theatre in Macon, Missouri needed a Jerry Lee Lewis. Rude auditioned, got the role and enjoyed it.

A year later, after he graduated, Rude played Lewis again in a small theatre in Sullivan, Illinois. Million Dollar Quartet was midway through its national tour when members of that cast saw Rude light up the stage. They passed Rude’s name to Music Director John Rossi, who asked for video.

Just like that, Rude was in the national cast. His first performance was at Laguna Playhouse, not far from the Mission.

Again, this wasn’t accidental. Rude evolved into the role by watching hundreds of hours of Lewis’ performances from the 1950s and 1960s on YouTube. He soaked it up like a sponge, watching everything from Lewis’ mannerisms to his facial expressions as he played to his stage presence.

“I wasn’t so much training for the style as the physicality of it all. Jerry was a bombastic player, but loose and free on the keys,” Rude said. “Going back and watching hundreds of videos of him from the ‘50s and ‘60s and seeing how he played, I try to absorb what I see and I look to emulate his physicality and gestures.

“But nothing can prepare you for the sound that he makes on the piano. I try to emulate those the best I can through different techniques I learned and watching reference videos. … It’s my blessing we have those videos. I use those to increase my repertoire and vocabulary of Jerry Lee Lewis. … I’ve matured as a person and I think what that means for my Jerry is I can look at a lot of different parts of him in a way I wouldn’t have been able to early in my career.”

Along with this, Rude serves as Million Dollar Quartet’s assistant music director. He’s the in-show eyes and ears, making sure the music sounds as seamless as it has in the rehearsal room. And Rude is eating up this experience like a Michelin-starred meal.

“Playing this character in this production, I’m over the moon,” he said. “… It feels like we’re playing off the back of a flat-bed truck. I love doing shows outdoors and this team is so incredible, so unique and so talented. I’m thrilled to have worked with (director) Jim Moye. He’s a director I’ve wanted to work with for a long time. I’ve had a blast with his vision for the show. The way we see this character and this show is simpatico.”

Time is running out, so make sure you see Rude and the rest of the Million Dollar Quartet now through Aug. 21 at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Watch a video of Billy Rude as Jerry Lee Lewis.

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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