Hunter Foster has a special relationship with the musical "Million Dollar Quartet,'' now playing at Great Lakes Theater at Playhouse Square. He not only starred as record producer Sam Phillips in the Broadway show in 2010, he has also directed the rock 'n' roll extravaganza in productions all the way from Casa Manana in Fort Worth, Texas, to Ogonquit Playhouse in Ogonquit, Maine.
"I believe it may be 11 different cities but I think it's actually my 16th or 17th different production" now with his latest in Cleveland, Foster said. That includes mounting the show twice at Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., and twice in Ogonquit.
So why has this Broadway star turned full-time director connected with this musical about rock legends Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley?
"I think part of it my association with it from the very beginning. It's one of those shows that I never get tired of doing because I love the music so much," said Foster, speaking by phone Thursday from Syracuse, New York, where he's artistic director of the Redhouse Arts Center.
Each time he directs a production, he also reunites with a stable of actor/musicians he has worked with on the show numerous times. At Great Lakes, they include Eric Scott Anthony as Brother Jay on upright bass, Dave Sonneborn as drummer Fluke, James Ludwig as Phillips and Sky Seals as Cash.
"It's sort of great to reunite with the guys," Foster said. "I love to travel, so I felt like that's been a good part of it as well."
Foster, whose breakthrough came in 2001 when he originated the role of Bobby Strong in the hilariously subversive musical "Urinetown" both Off-Broadway and on Broadway, has a long Broadway pedigree. His most recent roles on the Great White Way were Bud in "The Bridges of Madison County" in 2014 and Benny Perkins in "Hands on a Hardbody" in 2013.
Since then, Foster, 49, the older brother of Broadway and TV star Sutton Foster, has switched to directing full time. That came about in 2013, when Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania asked him to direct the musical "Summer of '42," for which Foster wrote the book, after director Lonny Price had to drop out.
That's when Foster's directing career began in earnest, a trajectory that most recently brought him to helm the Off-Broadway musical "The Other Josh Cohen," which closed in April.
Foster said the switch was a natural progression: "You sort of learn about how to do this in all those years that you're performing in different places and learning from different directors."
The first time Foster directed a regional production of "Million Dollar Quartet" was in Ogonquit in 2015. He's been so busy with the show, he even had two casts performing at the same time in 2017 — at St. Louis Rep and Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.
"Million Dollar Quartet" has become such a well-oiled machine, Foster and the cast are able to put it together in just 1½ weeks for each production. That includes the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland, where Gabe Aronson (Jerry Lee Lewis), Kristen Beth Williams (Dyanne) and Sean Michael Buckley (Elvis) are working with Foster for the first time.
Foster brings a very personal perspective to directing "Million Dollar Quartet" after having performed in the show on Broadway.
"I feel like I contributed to the show from the beginning,'' said Foster, who said certain suggestions he made as an actor are now part of the script. "I think you just sort of know why certain things were done a certain way because you were there."
Great Lakes Theater's co-production of "Million Dollar Quartet" runs through May 26 in Cleveland and will then move on to Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival and Idaho Shakespeare Festival.
"It's intimate and a rock 'n' roll show plays really well in there, which is great," Foster said of the Hanna Theater in Cleveland.
At the Hanna, Foster has dealt with the challenge of a narrow thrust stage. As a result, he has Elvis' entrance into Sun Records studio coming from an aisle in the house, which required the creation of the new Elvis line, "I came in through the back door."
Foster, who started as artistic director at Redhouse Arts Center in December, has come on board at an exciting time, after its move to a 44,000-square foot, three-theater complex in downtown Syracuse. Among his plans there, he'll be developing two new musicals that he's written.
Mum's the word still on what those show titles are. Foster also plans to continue working on other projects throughout the country.
"It's a lot of work but it's a challenge that I'm happy to take," he said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.