An Elvis Presley tribute act travelling the UK is hardly an original concept. In fact since the King of Rock N’ Roll’s death just over 40 years ago, the world’s stages have been saturated. But yet I’ve never seen one, and I’m thrilled to say I still haven’t!
This is Elvis, directed by Bill Kenwright is far more than the familiar jukebox tribute so many of his fans have become accustomed to. It’s an endearing narrative which reveals a side to the King I knew nothing about.
I left the auditorium “all shook up,” and for all the right reasons!
I remember the day I decided I didn’t like Elvis. It was my Mum’s 40th birthday, she’d received a birthday card with a 1950’s theme, the decade of her birth, and it had many iconic musicians on its cover. Elvis was one of them, and it was then my mum said: “I really don’t like Elvis.” I was impressionable and valued my mum’s opinion and from that day forward, I decided neither did I.
Fast forward two decades, I sat in front of the stage, knowing a handful of songs, surrounded by an audience made-up of varying ages, no comparable spring in my step with no idea that within an hour I’d be out of my seat attempting a jive. I now know the lyrics to some of his most famous songs, want to master the jive and have a yearning to learn more about this iconic man who had such an extraordinary upbringing, a twin brother and who stood up for civil rights!
This is Elvis, is set in 1968. The audience enter a point (Act 1) where Elvis’ career is on a downward trail after a series of bad movies and a loss of touch with his roots after a brief stint in Vietnam which has left him eclipsed by the likes of Tom Jones. He secures a space on an NBC special, surrounded by an intimate audience (us) in a show which is later touted as his “comeback special” as he stuns the world with a reminder of his raw talent performing favourites such as “Hound Dog,” “Love me Tender” and “Heartbreak Hotel”.
The story ensues with Elvis’ quandary between going on the road and reconnecting with his old roots and acting on a hugely lucrative deal put to him by his manager “The Colonel”, Tom Parker, never seen on stage, which will see him play shows in the bright lights of Las Vegas (Act 2).
It’s a celebratory story, overshadowed at times by the realities that plagued the King himself, his complex relationship with both his mum and wife, Priscilla, alcohol and drug dependency and the manipulation of his manager.
And this is where the talent of award winning, Stephen Michaels, who plays Elvis Presley really shines through. A scarily uncanny representation of the king himself. It would have felt enough for the lead to possess the power of Presley’s lungs, but to be able to play both the public performer and the man behind the media scrutiny with equal care makes him as eerily close to the real thing as possible. It was immediately apparent why the Canadian-born tribute had garnered such international success with a likeness that stretched from his incredible voice, hair, sideburns and piercing eyes. Whenever I closed my eyes, Elvis was in the building but unfortunately a brief glance at his pelvis and he’d swiftly left. An absence of Elvis-the-Pelvis needn’t have overshadowed this musical though, as impersonation isn’t entirely what it was about.
Stephen is accompanied on stage by various musicians who represent the “Memphis mafia” and his bandmates, who function as points of interaction to bring together the narrative of the 12 months between the “comeback” show and his opening night at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.
Under the seamless musical direction of Steve Geere, the “various musicians” also form a very tight 10-piece band that keep things fresh, dynamic and familiar. The Sweet Inspirations, in the form of Sylvia, Myrna and Estelle also deserve a special mention as their feisty dance moves were responsible for my own moves once I was up on my feet during Act 2.
Mark Pearce, playing Charlie Hodge, and Reuven Gershon as Joe Esposito, Elvis’ loyal friends are comical and provide welcome breaks between the hefty hits of songs which come thick and fast from Stephen Michael, who barely breaks a sweat! Their accents do take you on a journey around America though as I heard switches between Southern and City Slicker happen a fair amount.
The bright lights, the sparkle and the showbiz did feel somewhat missing in Act two, to say the audience were supposed to be in Vegas. I admittedly did expect a costume change in between sets but the absence of this strips back the performance to the bare bones, the grit and raw emotions behind the reenactment of the 1969 performance, of which personal highlights included “In the Ghetto,” An American Trilogy” and of course “Suspicious Minds.”
By enjoying the Las Vegas show so much, the irony is that the audience were joyfully participating in the exploitation that led Elvis to abandon his dreams, follow the money and go down the path he did – but irrespective, it’s still an absolute joy to watch whether you’re an Elvis fanatic, an amateur fan or in my case, not.
What’s good to know about this musical though, is that it is not an impersonation, an impression or a tribute – This is…Elvis!
This is Elvis is showing at Royal Concert Hall until Saturday 11th August, get your tickets here before Elvis leaves the building.
Review by Nadya Jaworksyi