nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
June 19, 2007
The idea of collecting a series of short playlets and amalgamating them together to create a new play isn't a fresh one. Even the concept of revolving a theatre piece around a singular artist, in this case Elvis Presley, is well-documented, usually under the derogatory heading of a "jukebox musical" (e.g., the recent All Shook Up). Elvis People takes this a step further with its once-removed "jukebox play" and attempts to highlight the subculture around Elvis's rabid fan-base. But in order for a premise like this to work, there needs to be a strong central axis, something the vignettes can revolve around and relate to. There was no star bigger than Elvis, yet he appears in this play only once—offstage! Ultimately, this tragic and irreversible decision by writer Doug Grissom inverts Elvis's star into its direct opposite, a black hole, whose gravity plunges the entire production down with it.
In retrospect, I should have known I was in for a rough go when Elvis People has a disclaimer on the first page of the playbill which reads "performance of this work does not imply affiliation with nor approval or endorsement of Elvis Presley Enterprises." Heartbreak Hotel, indeed.
The vignettes, directed by Henry Wishcamper and all penned by Grissom, are mostly hard to watch. In an effort to emphasize the positives, I can report that Act I has a nice monologue delivered by Ed Sala, one called "Elvis In Vietnam" about a veteran who listens to Elvis as motivation to survive a grenade assault, and the slightly amusing piece "The Button," featuring a game Jenny Maguire and Nick Newell using a button ripped from Elvis's jacket as a metaphorical aphrodisiac. Act II contains the most-fleshed out piece, and the only one to show any kind of heart to it, called "The Impersonator," starring Sala as an Elvis impersonator named Hank. It Hank's rise and fall through four levels of fake Elvis, like a mini-VH1 Behind The Music special on a third-rate carbon copy. It is the only time during the evening where you feel sympathy for a character, or actually take a journey along with one, as he tries to understand the rush of fame (however bizarre) and its fleeting properties.
Unfortunately, that is the only bright spot to come from the script. Some bits, such as "Fudge Ripple," which fictionalizes members of the King's Memphis Mafia panicking over not buying ice cream for Elvis, are cartoonishly awful and factually incorrect. "Robbery," about the lamest attempt ever to steal Elvis's corpse, is one of the biggest flops at comedy I've seen in quite some time. The impression of Colonel Parker in "Songwriting for E" left a lot to be desired. The physical production of the piece is at least solid, with good costuming from Theresa Squire and nice scenic design from Cameron Anderson. But even the sound design, by Graham Johnson, focuses on Elvis covers by a variety of artists, rather than music from the King himself. How is that possible? Where is the throughline? Where is Elvis's voice during the play itself, instead of only hearing him sing his songs during intermission?
Truly I wish that there was more to recommend about this piece, as I confess to being not only an "Elvis person" myself, but that my two trips to Graceland proved to be enlightening if not downright life-altering. The vignettes don't do actual Elvis fans any justice at all, turning them into trailer-trash cartoons, sycophantic buffoons, or just plain wackos. "The Impersonator" proves that Grissom can write about an Elvis fan story that has a heart in it. He just chooses not to, making for a waste of an evening.