There isn’t a set of recordings more startling or enduring than the ones a then-unknown Elvis Presley made in 1954 for Sun Records.
Wild and confident, with a force of personality that was pure because it had nothing to do with making an image and everything to do with just letting a fresh self leap into being for a free moment of expression, Elvis embodied and defined the alpha and omega of rock ‘n’ roll, right there in producer Sam Phillips’ Memphis studio.
To apply a Talmudic saying to rock history, “the rest is commentary"--whether it be the Beatles, the Stones or any of the other great rock musicians to come.
But don’t look for any “Sun Sessions” vitality in “Elvis: A Musical Celebration,” which opened Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. In its place, the show’s creators offered a tame, attenuated version of rock ‘n’ roll. They have bound rock’s Prometheus to a tightly choreographed, fast-moving script. No great rock music--especially not the music of the early Elvis--can live by a script.
Instead of exploding with fire and physicality, those earliest Sun songs--"That’s All Right Mama,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Mystery Train"--were sung from behind a screen, with the first of the production’s three Elvis impersonators barely visible amid a blanket of multimedia images. Elvis and his band looked like flickering ghosts behind that barrier; their performance had all the flesh and solidity of a holographic image.
The first act of the show--the one focusing on Presley’s rock ‘n’ roll years, before he strayed from innovation in pursuit of movie fame and Vegas celebrity--failed completely to acknowledge the collaborative nature of rock.
The names Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana--the guitarist, bassist and drummer who supported Elvis in his early days--were not mentioned, even though they were nearly as important a spark to rock’s development as Presley himself.
The show was too busy zipping through a dizzy array of set changes and flashing images to pause for a moment and evoke the give-and-take of a small band of musicians working in a collaborative community, which is the essence of rock.
Besides being a great singer, Elvis was a savvy bandleader; you wouldn’t know it from this tribute.
The zest of rock was hinted at in a couple of instances--notably a sequence in which Elvis and his pals staged an impromptu dance party at Graceland while film images of Bill Haley & the Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Platters and Little Richard flashed intermittently in the background.
Johnny Seaton, who played Elvis for the bulk of the show, was fully in command of the Presley look and style--a very capable impersonator. (Terry Mike Jeffrey, who played the pre-1956 Elvis, and Julian Whitaker, who played Elvis in decline, gave less convincing performances.)
A funny thing happened in Act II, which portrayed an Elvis gone to Hollywood, to Vegas, to seed--an Elvis who hardly belonged any longer to the rock world. The more irrelevant Elvis became to rock’s development, the better this tribute worked. It is the tragedy of his career, but Elvis transformed himself after 1957 from a rocker into an entertainer, a conventional show-biz star, a follower of scripts capable of being replicated and captured in a by-the-numbers stage production.
Unlike the spare rockabilly arrangements of the early material, which needed to be infused with spontaneity and force of personality if they were to have any life, the more complex song arrangements of such numbers as “Jailhouse Rock,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Suspicious Minds” lent the music presence and bite that were missing in the first half.
The Vegas sequences had zest and accuracy, and they delighted the near-capacity house. A cleverly staged Elvis-in-Hollywood segment brought some needed--but, in this production, usually lacking--insight by overtly mocking Elvis for lolling in a fantasy world of B-movies while the cultural explosion of the ‘60s went on without him.
In a telling moment that provided the production’s musical peak, supporting singer Collette Hill rendered a tough, soul-inflected rocker called “Backlash,” drowning out Elvis singing a dreamy “Blue Hawaii” while real-life images of war, assassination and civil strife flashed on the screen.
Those who loved the safe, sequined, show-biz Elvis who ruled Las Vegas will probably enjoy this “Celebration.” Those who want to see a rock performance that takes chances, that moves unpredictably with the moment’s mood and, above all, acts as an assertion of a real, breathing self, have a better chance of finding it at Jerry Lee Lewis’ concert Saturday night at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim.
The Killer on a good night is a more fitting tribute to the King and what his better artistic self stood for than this glitzy theatrical construct could ever be.