FringeReview UK 2018
Steve Michaels’ central performance is tagged to a story by Laurie Mansfield, converted to Philip Norman’s book shaped by director/producer Bill Kenwright. Associate director/choreographer Carole Todd makes an impact. Andy Walmsley’s design moves from a starry-looking TV studio to Gracelands’ backdrop to Vegas’ International Hotel Suite; and Nick Richings’ all-lights backdrop with the musicians’ line-up feels as loud as Dan Samson’s sound design. Keith Strachan supervises with Steve Geere as musical director. Till July 14th, on tour.
More than one person was completely overwhelmed to see Elvis back. Steve Michaels spellbinds in the title role, and the thirteen-strong musician cast aren’t much less phenomenal. To a slim but tellingly-acted storyline in the first half we’re treated to forty numbers overall: nineteen in a first half with three scenes and a storyline, and twenty-one in a different place.
Michaels’ performance is tagged to a story by Laurie Mansfield, converted to Philip Norman’s book shaped with pace and pizzazz by director/producer Bill Kenwright. Associate director/choreographer Carole Todd makes an impact with all Michaels’ moves and some very funny first act scenes – an all-boy choral hug of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ japing around the King as he tries talking to Priscilla on the phone is treasurable and deliciously camp.
Andy Walmsley’s design moves from a starry-looking TV studio to Gracelands’ backdrop to Vegas’ International Hotel Suite; and Nick Richings’ all-lights backdrop with the musicians’ line-up uses every light-trick and feels as loud as Dan Samson’s sound design. With such a reaction from the fans, the explosive volume is needed. There’s obviously huge musical input. Keith Strachan supervises and Steve Geere’s musical direction has a lot to do with making this an unflagging, but not relentless experience.
We meet Elvis mid-career in December 1968, a little short of thirty-four with less than nine years to live. His fame’s long faded, he’s not played live since 1961 shortly after coming out of the army. Michaels’ Elvis is approached by Benjamin Stratton’s eloquent lucid producer Steve Binder who tries prising him back from ten years of deadening films and no tours for seven: all masterminded by the (in)famous manager Colonel Parker. Demonizing him proves so successful that mention of him (in thanks by Michaels’ Elvis) is later booed by the audience. ‘You’re a tough audience’ Michaels seems amused.
Though much of the show’s in the can, recorded in studio, Elvis backs out from a live TV performance. He won’t come on say his loyal bandsmen the sensitive Joe Esposito (Reuven Gershon) and Mark Pearce’s more bullish Charlie Hodge. Binder starts a challenging countdown, shaming Elvis on stage and of course it works and we’re treated to a high-voltage explosion of a man re-discovering his roots in a kind of whoop.
We’ve moved from ‘Trouble’ and ‘Guitar Man’ through all the great standards like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Hound Dog’ ‘All Shook Up’ and with meltingly potent stillness, ‘Love Me Tender’. Michaels certainly looks the part, but his vocal energy, his famed pelvis movements, an unbeatable combo of stand-and-deliver and sudden shaking moments means his vocal timbre needs to be rock-solid, as it were. Michaels shows no vocal strain at all, but inhabits rather than emulates the King’s dark timbre and smoky bottom notes. There’s no vocal fudge either: the words are otherwise crystalline.
Binder succeeds in his gambit. Elvis is hooked; so are his team. The (offstage) colonel and ditto wife Priscilla both chase Elvis on phone back home at Gracelands and we’re subjected to a series of comedy routines with that crooning barber-shop ensemble effect mockingly delivered as Priscilla simmers. In fact they’re onside – Elvis’ band want him to devote more time to his wife. Sadly it doesn’t seem to be working out. Elvis stands up to the colonel, compromise is struck: Vegas but not his old session musicians.
There’s some good jokes. Simon & Garfunkel sound like a law firm the King quips, only to grab ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ as his own. As he does the rival Beatles in a rendition of (of all things) ‘Get Back’ so Elvisian you think it’s his song. It becomes it too.
In a few strokes we’re delivered of Elvis’ life, his comments in the Vegas dressing room, then a rehearsal studio: a drama you’ll see for yourself.
The second half opens singularly with an 1896 German tone poem. Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathrustra was made famous in Kubrick’s 2001 and here in 1969, its fanfare-opening blasts us into Vegas space, Elvis’ white vampire suit rampant as the ever-loyal Charlie and Joe complain. Richings’ lighting reminds us of Kubrick too, or every diamond in Vegas clustered in close-up.
Again we start with an early piece ‘That’s All Right Mama’ (his first Sun Records great) ‘Viva Las Vegas’ and ‘Blue Suede shoes. Here in Carl Perkins’ song Michaels swings the refrain flattening the note on ‘blue’ as Elvis must have done when he made it his own. The Elvis songbook is there right down to the last ‘Jailhouse Rock’ to rock out the audience.
Most affecting is the 1969 hit ‘In the Ghetto’ by the still-active Mac Davis who wrote several later Elvis hits. It’s a social-realist piece about ‘an angry young an with a gun his hand/lying face down in Chicago’ starting and ending with a deprived child being born. I remember it making a huge impact at the age of ten; it’s a great pity we had so few of these ballads later on, that Elvis delivered – and Michaels delivers – so blisteringly. We don’t think of Presley the social campaigner but we’re given a taste in his ad-libs of a contempt for racism and segregation.
The musicians cry out for mention. The Inspirations – Chevone Stewart (Estelle), Katrina May (Myrna) and Misha Malcolm (Sylvia) double other roles but as a trio they’re estimable. Geere anchors as MD on the keyboard, Niall Kerrigan as James Burton and the discarded Scotty on lead guitar, Matthew Hobbs multi-roling on bass guitar, Tim Mylechreest’s Red West and Andrew Bowerman’s Billy Smith on trumpets, Mike Lloyd on trombone who acts the hotel manger, Billy Stookes takes a number of roles finally coming home to his musicianship as a drummer.
Kenwright’s directing as well as producing hand seems lovingly dedicated to bringing out the tightest as well as the best – and with forty stupefying numbers too. Some Kenwright productions can seem a tad undernourished: not here. Inevitably this stands or falls by Michaels, but it could only be outstanding if the whole production revs around it, and this one fires into life, never letting up. This Is Elvis. Elvis lives. End of.