Friday, May 26, 2017

Listen Up: Nathan McHenry

Posted By on Fri, May 26, 2017 at 5:23 PM

click to enlarge Nathan McHenry plays Jerry Lee Lewis in "Million Dollar Quartet." - MICHAEL DONAHUE
  • Michael Donahue
  • Nathan McHenry plays Jerry Lee Lewis in "Million Dollar Quartet."

The tips of the upper E, F and G keys on the piano in Playhouse on the Square’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet” are chipped.

“Those chips - that’s definitely because of my foot,” said Nathan McHenry.

McHenry, 24, plays Jerry Lee Lewis in the musical set in the mid 1950s at Sun Studios. He strikes the keyboard with his size eight and a half caramel-colored Stacy Adams wing tip during several songs.

He’s played the piano since he was five, but he used his right foot to hit the pedals, not the keys. “I don’t want to damage any of the pianos I’m playing.”
Performing in the show as Lewis was a different story; he had to use his foot a la the Killer. “You just kind of throw it up there and go for it. I use my feet on ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man,’ ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’’ and during scenes when I want to annoy Carl (Perkins).”
He’s not trying to hit a specific note with his shoe, but to “hit the ballpark. The right area.”

McHenry, who will play Lewis through Sunday’s matinee/end of run, recently was named Playhouse on the Square’s music director.

A native of North Carolina, McHenry began singing in church. “First time I sang in church I was four. With my sister. Something about ‘the name of Jesus.’”

He also loved the sounds made by soul singers. He especially liked gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. “My mom remembers me in the bathtub trying to sing like a black woman in this high voice.”

Jerry Lee inklings emerged when McHenry was a child. “I always was someone with a loud mouth always making noise.”

And, to this day, he will “dance around and beat on things.”

McHenry got into theater after his mother gave him the choice of continuing with soccer or joining a theatrical group. “I would have picked anything over soccer.”

He fell in love with acting. He landed his first role in “Anne of Green Gables” when he was seven. “I played some little boy who was supposed to have a crush on Anne. And I didn’t know what a ‘crush’ was. But I still delivered the lines as they were written and got a big laugh every night.”

McHenry hasn’t stopped performing since. “Somewhere in the 70s and 80s is how many shows I’ve done.”

He began dancing in musicals in high school. “I never took a dance class until high school. But our choreographer helped me along. And in college I developed more of an affinity for dance and movement.”

McHenry studied classical and jazz piano, but he picked up the rockabilly style when he landed a role as a brooding filling station attendant with slicked back hair in “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”

He moved to Memphis in 2013 after auditioning in the Unified Theater Auditions. Playhouse on the Square director Jordan Nichols called him back to take on the “Memphis: The Musical” role of Huey Calhoun, a “fictional recreation” of legendary deejay Dewey Phillips.

He listened to clips of Phillips’s old “Red, Hot & Blue” radio shows on YouTube. “You just listen to him for a minute and you’re, ‘OK, man. That guy is just crazy.’”

McHenry apparently has an affinity for playing wild men. “I think there’s a part of me that’s a little psychotic, yeah. But, really, most people are often surprised. Especially after this show. People come up and meet me in the lobby and are surprised: ‘Oh, my. You’re a normal guy.’”

McHenry was given another internship so he could stay in Memphis and play Lewis in “Million Dollar Quartet.” “I look somewhat similar to Jerry Lee. But I think a lot of it is that kind of energy. Just that ‘there’s something not quite right up there.’”

He didn’t want to “over analyze” his role, but he watched a lot of Lewis’s videos as preparation for the part. “I was immediately impressed by how he - and no one else has done this - can play the piano almost like a guitar. He can make noises up higher on the keyboard that are not notes, but they fit. He can just sit there and bang it and he doesn’t care what he’s playing. And it works.”

McHenry is on stage just about every minute of the hour and a half-long show. “I leave for about 30 seconds after the first number and come back on and don’t leave again.”

He’s constantly moving, twisting, turning and fidgeting on stage. “The show is a big workout for me. I ran a little bit during the rehearsal process just trying to get my cardio up so I could get through stamina wise.”

McHenry leaps on top of the piano at one point in the show. “Jumping up there took a little practice. I try to just think about if I’m vaulting over something. So, I do jump up. I put a hand down on the top of it and throw my legs over. I jump and then sit on top.”

He looks cool and collected as he takes his stage bow in a glittery red jacket with flames and piano decals on the arms.

After the show? “It takes me at least five minutes to get my breath back. It’s hard to just get a regular cycle of breathing again.”

“Million Dollar Quartet” is at 8 p.m. Friday and at 2 and 8 pm. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at Playhouse o

'Wild One' from Michael Donahue on Vimeo.

n the Square, 66 Cooper Street; (901) 726-4656

'Just a Little Talk With Jesus' from Michael Donahue on Vimeo.

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