When you think of a tribute to Elvis Presley rife with impersonators, female back-up singers and sultry dancing, you generally think of a Vegas lounge act and a cheesy one at that; not a classic black box theatre production at a venue where the likes of Shakespeare and Moliere have, no doubt, been performed.
“Elvis is in the Building” is the love labor of The Avery Schreiber/Mirror Theatre Artistic Director Stacy Ann Raposa. “I was raised by parents that grew up in the 50’s. My childhood was spent listening to Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis. I acquired a great love and appreciation for poodle skirts and motorcycles, T-Birds and Pink Ladies, pony tails and pompadours. My two aunts, Joan and Carol were huge Elvis fans. I have them to thank for my introduction to and love for The King.”
Having written two of the short plays and conceptualizing the basic structure of the extravaganza, it has been a concept years in the making. “Just after I graduated from USC’s School of Theatre, I had an idea. I wanted to turn my love of Elvis into a show that others could enjoy. It was going to be amazing! I would write several short plays that somehow revolved around the idea of Elvis and I would have singing and dancing…what could be better?!?! …I realize now…that he is the same age when he died that I am now. Maybe there’s something to that. I struggled with the idea of this play for so long, and now, after more than 10 long years in the making, I am lucky enough to have the vision realized on stage. Maybe this wasn’t supposed to happen until I reached the age I am now. The age Elvis was when he died. I don’t even know what that means, but it makes me feel better to think that there’s something to it. It connects me to him. And that’s what theatre is about isn’t it? A connection with another human being?”
As the audience files into the theatre, the stage is a bustle with cast members (most looking notably under the age of thirty) reciting random and interesting facts about the King himself while playing various improv games above a most rousing and related musical soundtrack and I can’t help but think it all looks a bit like a rogue version of “Bye Bye Birdie”.
From “Bye Bye Birdie” to ambient Vegas lounge act, the lights dim for the start of the performance proper only to come up on our production’s Elvis impersonator extraordinaire Keith Staley. Having studied Elvis extensively for the past seven years, Staley has also read twelve Kingly biographies, watched all thirty three of his films, learned 300 of his songs and trained himself to play guitar on twelve more.
Though he does not much resemble the King, at least not in the face, it hardly matters as his stance, body language and body type encapsulate the white pant suited, rhinestone clad monarch’s stage presence most aptly. Above and beyond everything else, Staley has a voice that soars, croons and wails in an imitation that, if not exact, captures the essence of Presley’s soul musically, not to mention, spiritually. (Incongruously pretty impressive for a guy who once played the title role in the Scottish play, not to mention Satan in an independent feature.) Staley will sing and dance throughout the night in between each dramatic performance.
The heart of the theatrical element of the evening begins with the play “Sandwich” by the evening’s creator Stacy Ann Raposa, exploring two vastly differing tales as to the inception of the famed, Elvis-inspired fried peanut butter, banana sandwich. An elderly black woman and very young white child, somehow in the same space, in the middle of the night each have their versions of the story; one very pure and chaste and the other a little more bawdy. But how can this be? Are we in a “Twilight Zone” episode? Is there a glitch in the Matrix? Only the end of the play knows…
“Careful What you Wish” by husband of the show’s creator Andrew Thompson focuses on a twenty something couple: Jack and Diane. (Yes, I know. Hold that thought and just chill…) Jack an “Elvis Imitator”, in all his fake mutton-chopped glory, declines to get a ‘real’ job and refuses to be labeled an “Elvis Impersonator”. “Calling me an Elvis Impersonator makes me sound like a drag queen.” Having gotten lost at sea, quite literally, while on a walk on some rocks in the middle of the ocean, during a tour of duty no less, Jack was spared from drowning. It is a tale beyond arresting and resultantly, Jack’s opinion that he is destined for something special on this planet. All Jack wishes is that he could be just like Elvis. All Diane wants is Jack; the real and authentic Jack. They are at an impasse. (“The Impassible Dream”?) So will eventually conclude “the little ditty of Jack and Diane” quite literally, to a surprising, if not, humorous end…
“Ella”, also by Stacy Ann Raposa, explores a fictional interracial romance between a teenage Elvis and a young girl from a local Memphis church. From the time the fourteen-year-old Ella, played strongly, sweetly and sincerely by Nicole Dacosta, hears Elvis, played by an equally earnest and enchanting Alex Macnicoll, sing the gospel, she is mesmerized. “I had never heard a white boy sing Gospel like that…it was like he was possessed or something.” (Possessed in church no less. Now that’s really saying something. Oh the Irony!) Ella dates the…well, not-yet-King—Prince(?) for two years and sings back-up for him until a personal emergency drives them apart. “I got offered to tour, but he didn’t really talk to me much after that…” Older Ella’s (played by a captivating Michelle Lambert) monologue regarding the harrowing experience is completely arresting and the audience goes silent in a way that can only make you think that no loose pins better have been left in any costumes.
“By Degrees” by James A. Bazinet does not provide for much conflict or dramatic suspense but is staged rather interestingly and gives the audience that nostalgic noodge so fitting to the evening’s retrospective. No set pieces are utilized, only a chalk-board like contraption as a projection façade for slides; slides depicting Didi’s, (the home’s ostensible curator) ever changing idea of how she wants everything adorned. As her concepts fluctuate, so do the slides on the screen, eventually giving us all a picture of what the homestead’s living room looked like in the late seventies.
The last piece of the evening, “King for a Day” is a most monstrous monologue (not only pertaining to its largesse but also the fact that it ends at Halloween) that could very well be transformed into a one man show if the writer/performer so chose. The entertainer in question: Dodd–a self proclaimed “God-loving, Republican fag from small town Texas” whose sole mission it seems is to find redemption and humor in his upbringing. Dodd’s “King for a Day” explores a most awkward and vulnerable time of life; puberty between the ages of 12 and 13. On top of witnessing his parents’ divorce, with the added challenge of switching schools wherein his characterization transformed itself from “funny” kid to another unsavory “f” word, his early teenage years are tough. From the beginning Dodd notes that homosexual children between the ages of 12-13 are at most risk for suicide and that he was no exception. Sensing something is wrong, it becomes his mother’s (portrayed equally colorfully by Dodd) sole mission to assist him and his dramatic sensibilities in becoming “funny” (again) for his classmates rather than the dreaded “f” word. At her invention, she reminisces some entertainments from her youth in an attempt to assist him with the perfect Halloween costume, “[When I was 17, I threw my panties at Elvis but they just] landed in a 70-year-old man’s nachos. Never got ‘em back. What would a 70-year-old man want with a 17-year-old girl’s panties?”—(gasp of realization). Utilizing the help of her memory of The King, (but not Michael Jackson as Dodd originally assumes) she is able to help transform her son for a day in the most glorious of ways as he utters the near closing sentence, “Today I wasn’t alone, Elvis was IN the building.”
“Elvis is in the Building” will be performed for its final weekend, this coming Friday January 31st at 8 pm and Saturday February 1st at 8 pm.
For more information on this production and the Avery Schreiber Theatre, please visit: http://www.averyschreiberplayhouse.com/