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STAGE REVIEWS : ‘Elvis’ Imagery Wows Crowd, but Message Is Non-Existent

Times Staff Writer

You probably didn’t realize this, but Elvis Presley was central to every social revolution of his time from civil rights to the banana split. At least that is what the creators of “Elvis: A Musical Celebration” would have us believe.

So let’s forget all the pre-show puffery about their self-proclaimed intent “to put him in a context.”

What they have created, in fact, is a triumph of kitsch. Theatrically, this $3-million apotheosis of a rock star represents the ultimate in packaging. The multimedia show that opened Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center goes way beyond Broadway’s “Beatlemania” of nearly a decade ago--the only comparable production--both as an entertainment and as a technical marvel.

The musical celebration aside (see Mike Boehm’s accompanying review for that), “Elvis” sweeps over you for 2 hours like a colossal tide of moving pictures. Ironically, the King himself is dwarfed on stage by a giant-size collage of images projected on all sorts of ingeniously devised screens but primarily on a see-through scrim that moves up and down like a push-button window.

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The effect of the imagery, taken from Presley’s and the nation’s past, is gee-whiz brilliant--the theatrical equivalent of what Hollywood discovered in the ‘40s with “deep focus” photography: If you fill every corner of the screen with sharply defined details, viewers bathed in visual information will perceive a multiplicity of meanings and they will edit for themselves.

You want social significance? Here’s the “Rex Theater for Colored People,” about the time Presley was born; there are the marchers in Selma, Ala., about the time Presley was rendered irrelevant by the Beatles. You want pop significance? Here’s an old-time jukebox, more beautiful than a rainbow, with a live Johnny Seaton as Elvis, framed inside it like a synchronized hologram; there he is on the Ed Sullivan show, with one of the production’s grander conceits enacted by an All-American family of Gargantuan puppets.

One breathless novelty follows another in every possible permutation of screen and performer, until 45 minutes and dozens of songs into the first act we get a taste of character analysis offered tongue-in-cheek. What made Elvis great? He didn’t smile, that’s what. He learned from James Dean and Marlon Brando that “you can’t be sexy if you smile,” we are told. “They sneer. And Elvis admired that.”

While this authorized extravaganza can’t be taken seriously either as a true portrait of Presley’s life or as a measure of his importance in the cultural landscape, it is mesmerizing. On opening night the crowd in the nearly sold-out house seemed as dumbstruck as wallpaper--which this reviewer took for a sign of awe. Certainly the show gets up to speed almost instantly, running at a frenetic pace with so little variation that in itself was hypnotic.

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Some of the juxtapositions seem mystifying, however. Was there a cosmic significance to the pillow fight during “Heartbreak Hotel?” The feathers seem to drift down from outer space. What is the connection between “We Shall Overcome” and “Blue Hawaii?” Why is Maxwell House Coffee promoted as a cultural icon? Does it have anything to do with the company’s sponsorship of the national tour of “Elvis?”

In the second act, the gears shift slightly. The live action still runs like clockwork, but it sometimes fuels the screen imagery and not the other way around. Seaton does a fine job in “Jailhouse Rock” (though the number doesn’t hold a candle to the movie original). A surf sketch integrates nicely with a medley of visuals from Presley’s Hawaiian movies. And one bossa nova dance routine, like the particularly good sock-hop sequence in the first act, has unmitigated charm.

Given the show’s almost complete lack of dialogue, it is impossible to tell whether Seaton is much of an actor. He is on stage singing for virtually the entire time, spelled occasionally by Terry Mike Jeffrey and Julian Whitaker during different periods of Presley’s life. As the star of the show, Seaton has only one brief monologue in the second act, which comes as close to soul-searching as this show ever gets.

It doesn’t really matter whether he can act, anyway. There is nothing in this production that can compete with the spectacle. The real star of the show is the technical team. “Elvis: A Musical Celebration” actually celebrates nothing so much as itself. We could do worse. It is a lot more fun than “Can-Can.”


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