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‘Elvis’ Aims to Salute America, Its King : Writer, Actor Insist That Musical Isn’t Another Presley Impersonation Rip-Off

Times Staff Writer

The debate rages on: Is Elvis alive and, if so, is he still the Burger King of Rock ‘n’ Roll?

The personality cult surrounding Elvis Presley, whose 1977 death spawned a legion of impersonators in lounges across America, continues to take on bizarre new dimensions, especially since the 1988 publication of the much-publicized book “Is Elvis Alive?” set off a spate of Presley sightings from a guest room at Graceland to a Burger King in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Last year also saw the launching of “Elvis: A Musical Celebration,” a glitzy multimillion-dollar salute that brought rock ‘n’ roll’s first and brightest star back to the Las Vegas Hilton and later to stages across the United States and Canada. The show, in which three actors portray Presley at different ages amid a multimedia barrage of film images and special effects, opens today for a 6-day run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

To suspicious minds, the musical may look like just another attempt to cash in on the continuing fascination with the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, but the creators of “Elvis” say the show is more than just a glorified impersonation revue.

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“There’s been a lot of cheap rip-off shows,” the show’s writer, Robert Rabinowitz, said in a telephone interview. “The intent here is to put him in a context.”

Jules Fisher, co-producer and lighting designer of “Elvis,” also defended the show during a separate phone interview. “It isn’t in any way an impersonation show,” said Fisher, who originated the musical’s concept with partner Rodger Hess. “We were interested in how America affected him and how he affected America.” Fisher described the show’s goal as “entertainment that will say something.”

Still, convincing theater audiences of the show’s honorable intentions can be difficult. “That word ‘imitator’ is tough. . . . I think serious theatergoers have a tendency to think twice about it,” said writer Rabinowitz. But, he asked, “if Ralph Bellamy is doing Roosevelt, do you call him an impersonator?”

Nobody in the show knows the impersonator stigma better than Johnny Seaton, who, of the three actors playing Presley, has the most stage time. Seaton portrays Elvis from “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956 through his 1969 concert comeback at the Las Vegas International (now the Hilton).

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“People have told me I look like Elvis Presley since I was a little kid,” Seaton said during an interview in his Costa Mesa hotel room. In junior high and high school, he would do his Elvis impersonation at parties, as a lark, and after graduation he toured Europe doing his Presley routine.

But later, when he tried to perform his own root-oriented rock ‘n’ roll, he found himself getting more requests for “Hound Dog” and other Presley hits. “The Presley thing has really been a stigma for me,” Seaton said. “People have always wanted me to do Presley.”

Seaton said that when he heard about auditions for the “Elvis” show (then called “Elvis: An American Musical”), he told himself, “You can finally do Presley without being an impersonator.” He won the job over more than 1,000 other singers and actors who auditioned, and now he sings 42 songs and makes 26 costume changes for each performance.

“For me, I don’t impersonate,” Seaton said of his role. “I have to be a 21-year-old Elvis Presley and a 38-year-old Elvis. This is an actor’s job.”

And the show, he said, is not just for Presley fans. “It’s not about Elvis Presley. It’s about America,” Seaton said. “It doesn’t build Presley up to be some kind of god.”

Rather than pigeonhole him further into the Presley role, Seaton hopes “Elvis: A Musical Celebration” will lead to other opportunities in music and acting. He has a 6-week break after the Costa Mesa dates and will head to New York to record some of his own tunes for a new demo tape (he released an album several years ago on Rounder Records).

“I am my own person, and I have my own talents,” he said. Laughing and tugging at his lengthy but less-than-Elvis-size sideburns, he added, “I only grew these for the show, and this is as long as I’ll grow ‘em.”

In concept, “Elvis: A Musical Celebration” resembles another multimedia salute to a rock icon from the past, “Beatlemania.” The resemblance is more than coincidental: Fisher was a producer of “Beatlemania,” and Rabinowitz was co-writer of the show with Bob Gill.

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Both shows use film clips and other images to re-create the mood of the times and sometimes to make a point about the music: In one scene from “Elvis,” Seaton croons the innocuous “Blue Hawaii” from Presley’s dismal Hollywood period while film of a civil rights riot is projected.

“We were interested in the combination of film and live performers,” Rabinowitz said. “This is very sophisticated and very ambitious"--light years beyond “Beatlemania,” he said.

“Technically, that was very primitive,” he said. “But ‘Beatlemania’ was the first of these (multimedia shows), so I’ll always have a fondness for it.”

Rabinowitz said the new show concentrates on Presley as a performer, rather than on the sometimes sordid details of his personal life. “I’m more interested in Elvis and his relation to the times,” he said. “Unless you’ve been on Mars, you know that Elvis had a problem with pills. I have nothing to add that would merit discussion.”

Seaton argued that, rather than add to the personality cult that has grown around Presley, the show cuts through it to celebrate him as a performer and pioneer. That can be especially revelatory to people Seaton’s age and younger (he is 30) who grew up with the Elvis of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“He was the fat guy in the jumpsuit who died at 42,” Seaton said. Young audience members “think Elvis Presley is square and not hip and they find out it’s not true. . . .”

“I’m not on a . . . mission to save Presley’s image, by any means,” Seaton quickly added. But, he said, “he got such a rip-off after he died. . . . He should be remembered as a rebel and a rocker, not as the fat guy in the jumpsuit.”

“Elvis: A Musical Celebration” will be performed at the Orange County Performings Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa, today through Sunday at 8 p.m. There will also be a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday. Tickets: $19 to $40. Information: (714) 556-2787.

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