By Brian Robin
Corey Jones Commands the Stage as Sam Phillips
When Corey Jones was playing Dr. Gibbs in SCR’s spring production of Our Town, he noticed something that seemed insignificant to him at the time. He watched Hal Landon Jr., who played the Stage Manager, suddenly disappear during breaks in rehearsals.
“He would find a room behind the Segerstrom (Stage) and run his lines to himself,” Jones said. “He was huddled in a corner somewhere, rehearsing his lines. When you have that much text, you have to bring it all forward into your memory, so you can access it with dexterity.”
Now, Jones understands Landon’s rehearsal side trips. Playing Sam Phillips in Outside SCR’s production of Million Dollar Quartet, where Jones is responsible for 80-85% of the spoken text, brings Jones understanding and clarity to a role that isn’t too much different from Our Town’sStage Manager. Both characters are the glue that keeps the proceedings humming along. Both get the awesome responsibility of filling in context, of tying everything together for the theatregoer—as they often break the fourth wall and speak to the audience directly.
“He does not shut up during the show,” Jones laughed. “He engages quite a bit directly with the audience. He fills the role of the narrator and begins creating a connection to the audience. ‘Let me usher you through my story and the story of these four musical icons.’ But within the show, he has quite a bit of dialogue. There are maybe two scenes where I’m not directly leading the dialogue and action.
“I have the lion’s share of text, I’m driving the action and my main priority once I decided to take the role was to get off book as soon as possible. You can’t completely command the role and freely play this role in the show until you command the text.”
As Sun Records owner and music impresario Phillips, Jones is literally in every scene. Often times, he’s directly cutting from the present: December 4, 1956, to the recent past, where he tells the story of how he first met every member of the Million Dollar Quartet. Then, deftly, he’s back in the present, dealing with one plot twist or another.
There is one scene where Jones delivers nearly three full pages of script—all the while pivoting from one situation to another. It was taxing and frustrating. His training and perfectionism, honed via an MFA from the University of Texas, a foundation-building stint at the St. Louis Black Repertory and dozens of regional theatres all over the country, was hitting a plot twist that tied him up.
It took some adapting, along with some gentle reassurance from director Jim Moye—who played Phillips on and off-Broadway—for Jones to finally find his groove with the scene.
“When you’re an actor studying a character and you see it on a page, you start to think, ‘How do I map this out? How do I make this feel natural?’ … I wasn’t where I wanted to be and I had to get there,” he said. “You’re trying to connect the dots and go from one scene to another and that part was tough.”
And yet, once Jones connected those dots, it was seamless.
When you hear Jones’ commanding baritone settle down a feral Jerry Lee Lewis, you find yourself unconsciously settling down. When you hear his voice describe how he discovered “Elvi”—as he calls Elvis Presley—he has your attention. And when you see and hear Jones hold court on stage, you can understand how a West Chicago kid and would-be architect became an actor.
With that voice and presence, Jones was bound for the stage. But he wanted to be an architect, even as he impressed drama teachers in high school with his stage presence and voice. Once he got to college at Washington University in St. Louis, Jones realized he didn’t have the skill set to design buildings. Even en route to a history degree, Jones didn’t have the blueprints for an acting career—yet.
But one of his professors ran St. Louis Black Repertory and asked Jones if he wanted to intern. Jones spent two years there, enough time to draw up new life blueprints. Seeing 80-year-old Ruby Dee do a 90-minute, one-person show was the clincher.
“Watching professional Black actors doing this incredibly powerful work had a huge effect on me,” he said. “I wanted to do that. I want to do that type of life-changing work.”
That sent Jones off and acting, starting at the Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts (PCPA) in Santa Maria. Three years later, he moved to Los Angeles, then landed a plum role as The General in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning Book of Mormon. He worked at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, where he first met SCR Artistic Director David Ivers.
But playing Sam Phillips was something Jones never saw. He admitted it was a surprise. After all, Jones was a history major and as he joked, “Me and Sam don’t look anything alike.”
Maybe not. But when Jones-as-Phillips tells one of the Million Dollar Quartet they’ve “got something there," you don’t have to be a history major to believe it.
See Jones and the rest of the Million Dollar Quartet now through Aug. 21 at the Mission San Juan Capistrano.