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‘Elvis ’68,’ opening Friday in Glendale, brings audience inside Presley’s big comeback

‘Elvis ’68,’ opening Friday in Glendale, brings audience inside Presley’s big comeback
Casey Marshall portrays Elvis Presley in a musical about the rock sensation's 1968 TV special that revived his career. "Elvis '68" will open at the Glendale Centre Theatre Friday. (Photo by Brian Newell)

The lights are set. Cameras are rolling. Adrenaline is pumping.

Elvis Presley, uncharacteristically nervous, strides onto the stage clad in black leather. It’s 1968. The King hasn’t performed live in seven years and is attempting a comeback through a Christmas special airing on NBC.

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That’s the moment in time that audience members of “Elvis ’68,” a musical opening at the Glendale Centre Theatre this Friday, will find themselves.

“As soon as the play starts, everyone is transported back to 1968,” said Casey Marshall, who plays Presley. “And they are the audience for the comeback special.”

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Part concert, part play and part musical theater, “Elvis ’68” writer and director Brian Newell set out to recreate the special, including behind-the-scenes action and context for the legendary performance that ultimately relaunched Presley’s career.

Performed three times before at Newell’s Maverick Theater in Fullerton, the show arrives at the Centre Theatre after another Elvis-themed show, “Four Weddings and an Elvis,” planned in the venue fell through, Marshall said.

According to Marshall, Centre Theatre producer Brenda Dietlein had wanted him to perform in that show. When that production didn’t pan out, she asked him if he had another Elvis show to pitch. Having performed in every staging of “Elvis ’68,” to date, he had just the thing.

During a recent rehearsal, Marshall and the women portraying Presley’s backup singers sat in a circle and sang along to recordings from the special.

As they went through classics like “Blue Christmas” and “That’s All Right,” their heads and knees started bopping in time. At one point, they all began snapping their fingers.

It wasn’t unlike scenes from the actual television special, where Presley and his band sat facing each other on a small stage surrounded by adoring, predominantly female fans leaning in close and clapping along.

What could have been a kitschy scene in the television special was electrified by Presley’s impassioned performance and, unsurprisingly, a few suggestive moves.

As the group went through a catalog of Presley songs featured in the show, Kristen Hamilton, who sings the lower-pitched vocals, said she couldn’t pick a most popular song.

“What’s our favorite? I don’t know, I like them all,” she told her fellow performers.

Preparing for the show has made Marshall, previously ambivalent, a Presley fan.

“Now I am, now that I know more, now that I’ve seen a lot more,” Marshall said. “When I started, I didn’t know very much. He’s a little before my time.”

Steven Binder, a TV producer who eventually took on the ’68 special, also had misgivings about Presley in the late 1960s when the icon was beginning to look like a relic from the past, according to media reports from the era.

Binder, played in the local production by Rob Downs, serves as narrator in the show, providing context and some factoids about Presley.

While Marshall walks the Presley walk and talks the Presley talk — in a black leather suit — he insists he’s no Elvis impersonator.

Having played the “black leather outfit guy a lot” — including the Presley-based Pharoah character in a production of “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat” — Marshall said he’s learned to inhabit the role in a deeper way.

“If you call me an impersonator, you’re going to insult every Elvis impersonator on the planet,” Marshall said. “I’m not that.”

“Elvis ’68” will run from Friday until July 27. For more information, call the Glendale Centre Theatre at (818) 244-8481 or visit glendalecentretheatre.com.

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