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POP BEAT : ‘LEGENDS’ STARS GET NO RESPECT

Times Staff Writer

While squirming through the new “Legends in Concert” production at Knott’s Berry Farm on Tuesday, I thought more of the late Steve Goodman than of Elvis, John Lennon or the other deceased entertainers who are saluted in this glitzy Las Vegas-style revue.

More specifically, it was Goodman’s light-hearted song, “Elvis Imitators,” that sprang to mind. Its lyrics go, “When they put my imitation name in lights, there’ll be imitation good rockin’ tonight.”

Named “1985 Show of the Year” by the Greater Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, “Legends in Concert” has been transported with cast, stage, laser lights and multimedia effects intact for a summer run at Knott’s 2,100-seat Good Time Theatre. The only change is that producer-director John Stuart has trimmed the original 90-minute production to 48 minutes. Performances are thrice daily, except Wednesdays, through Labor Day.

The show, however, is not really the “tribute to a select few of the superstars of yesterday” as described in the press kit. Rather, it’s simply a parade of caricature images of Presley, Lennon, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin and Marilyn Monroe--sort of a wax museum that moves.

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Unfortunately, all that moves is not necessarily moving. The problem with such shows in general--and this production is no exception--is that they are content to deliver nothing more than physical and vocal likenesses of famous personalities. The mere re-creation of appearances is a hollow feat, so the only way to avoid a sideshow atmosphere would be to explore, through their words and music, the qualities that made those artists unique.

Yet there were the stereotypes: a nerdish-looking Buddy Holly decked out in a garish black-and-white plaid sport coat, a pouting, buxom Marilyn Monroe in the famous white halter dress, and a squat Janis Joplin looking like she just collided with a clothing rack in a Salvation Army thrift shop.

Even more disturbing than the one-dimensional images is the complete lack of respect shown for the music and spirit of the entertainers that the show purports to honor.

Rather than trying to faithfully duplicate the sparse, infectious, electric sound of Buddy Holly’s late-1950s recordings, actor George Trullinger and the “Legends” band gave a homogenized, mid-'70s Las Vegas rock sound to “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy,” and added piercing electric guitar solos where none originally existed.

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Following Holly, Marilyn Monroe impersonator Susan Griffiths crooned “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” without evoking any of the vulnerability and intelligence that lurked beneath Monroe’s dumb-blonde act.

Although Janis Joplin was one of the finest white blues singers ever, Sherie Rae, who more closely resembles actress Margot Kidder, projected none of the tortured soul that was the source of Joplin’s impassioned vocals. Instead of the spirit of Joplin, we saw a clownish figure draped in feathered boas prancing about the stage singing Joplin’s hits.

Peter McGann, who appeared as John Lennon in the original Broadway production of “Beatlemania,” embarrassingly portrayed Lennon circa 1969--white suit, collar-length hair and round, wire-framed spectacles--and singing early Beatles hits such as “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” The Lennon segment was capped by a tear-jerker finale. To the strains of “Imagine,” replete with pounding piano chords and heavily reverbed vocals, slides of Lennon and Yoko Ono were flashed on video screens at either side of the stage.

The Elvis on parade in “Legends” was neither the dynamic, playfully sexy Presley of the ‘50s nor the commanding, revitalized performer of the late ‘60s. Impersonator Jonathan Von Brana presented the high-collared, mumble-mouthed Presley of the mid-'70s, when “The King” had become a sad parody of himself. Von Brana also resorted to exaggerated pelvic bumping and grinding that was more Tom Jones than Elvis.

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One aspect of the Presley impression was accurate, however, in a way that was probably unintentional. Mumbling and slurring his way through “See See Rider,” “Teddy Bear” and “American Trilogy,” Von Brana expertly captured the kind of sloppy performance that was common in Presley’s declining days.

Anyone in the mood for a genuinely moving visual and aural tribute to great entertainers of the past would be better served by popping in a cassette of Elvis’ “Sun Sessions” or Lennon’s first solo album and thumbing through “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.”

Even the dead deserve better than “Legends in Concert.”

LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Monday for the Dio/Rough Cutt show Aug. 16 at the Pacific Amphitheatre. . . . The Kingston Trio will play the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana on July 18. . . . The Robben Ford Band will be at the Golden Bear on July 12. . . . The Righteous Brothers will be in concert at the Hop in Fountain Valley on July 31.

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