Who is Elvis? Obviously, we know who he was – an impossibly handsome young lad with the crooner’s voice who gyrated into rock stardom before choking on his own excess. But what does he mean to us now? Is he a figure of cultural appropriation, a white guy made good on the shoulders of black artists? A cautionary example of capitalist indulgence, the music industry’s archetypal Icarus? Or a symbol of class aspiration and the transformative power of fame, the poor man risen to the greatest pinnacle of celebrity?
Elvis: A Musical Revolution seems for a while to have a bet each way, before coming down hard on the latter reading, succumbing eventually to the starry-eyed wonder of the besotted fan, dazzled by the light of genius. This Elvis can be dismissive, rude and narcissistic but the portrait painted here is ultimately hagiographic; his journey pointedly ends not in the bloated chintz of his Vegas years, but the triumph of his ’68 Comeback special. There is not a single mention of drugs or liquor, food or death.
In the role of the King, Rob Mallett has an unenviable task: how to embody the look, moves and sound of Elvis the performer without bringing to mind whole generations of Elvis impersonators, that tacky wave of 'dodgy uncles in polyester jumpsuits' we try to avoid at weddings. While he doesn’t really ever look the part – there’s a strange resemblance to Crispin Glover’s 'cool phase' George McFly in Back to the Future – he does sound like him. Elvis’s baritone was richer than Mallett’s, and his inflections more natural, but overall it’s a solid approximation.
Mallett also works hard to show Elvis’s lighter, more charming side; he often comes across as goofy and sincere, a man buffeted by the vagaries of fame and fortune, even slightly infantilised. An abrupt shift into raging megalomania is poorly handled, but this is largely the fault of Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti’s book, which has a tendency to lurch from one biographical moment to another. Like most musicals of this ilk, it’s frustratingly episodic and superficial.
The book’s other glaring problem is its fondness for glibness and cliché. Elvis’s mum Gladys (an otherwise excellent Noni McCallum) is depicted as a saintly figure, dispensing old-world wisdom and then dying from an excrescence of sentiment. Colonel Parker (Ian Stenlake) is the hard-headed and grubby promoter. Priscilla (Annie Chiswell) is criminally underwritten, required to do little more than look miserable and complain about Ann-Margaret (Kirby Burgess, threatening to walk off with the whole show). Structurally, it functions as a dream play, time periods sliding and coalescing, Elvis’s childhood returning over and over as a reminder and admonishment. If only the producers didn’t feel the need to signpost everything, projecting the dates onto the set as if we couldn’t figure it out for ourselves.
Intriguingly, Elvis works best when it abandons storytelling for music making, when it leans into its jukebox roots. The scenes depicting Presley’s movies – all those dreadful plots and cheesy settings, the greedy churn of them one after another – are a production highlight. So are the gospel-inflected numbers sung by Charlie Williams, Jo-Anne Jackson and Joti Gore. And the ’68 special, where the king finally busts out in that iconic leather jumpsuit, is terrifically entertaining, an orgiastic Elvis love-in.
The production design is sharp and effective, from Isaac Lummins' costumes and Dan Potra’s set, to the excellent lighting from Declan O’Neill, which recreates the giant red Elvis in lights from the television special. Michael Ralph’s choreography is often jaw-dropping, and the ensemble throw themselves into it with precision and gusto. Director Alister Smith keeps the whole show running smoothly and the energy levels exhaustingly high, but he could afford more introspection and nuance. The fifties dance numbers become tiresome after a while, and some of the period trappings feel dangerously close to pastiche. Sometimes, even in a musical about Elvis, less is more.
Elvis: A Musical Revolution doesn’t seem to be associated in any way with Baz Luhrmann’s recent biopic, but it does feel highly indebted to it. The downplaying of Presley’s most grotesque extravagances is more pronounced, and the character of the Colonel less of a nightmarish phantom from some fever dream, but the essential goodness of Elvis and his unassailable place in music history remains the same. Jukebox musicals like this play slavishly to an already established fan base, and this one is no different. If you’re looking for trouble, or anything that might challenge a legacy, you’ve come to the wrong place.