Monday 4th June 2018 at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds.
Bill Kenwright defends his position as heavyweight in the world of musical theatre with This is Elvis, a new musical presented by Kenwright and Laurie Mansfield. The success lies with the perfectly cast Steve Michaels who is a force of nature as Elvis Presley; caught at the right angle, he’s the spitting image (particularly under the canny lighting design of Nick Richings), he proves himself capable of being a vocal mockingbird and he is a performer of superb stage presence. Artificially placed before replaying history, we are given brilliant mini concerts by an accomplished doppelgänger and while Book and scripting by Philip Norman doesn’t exactly glitter, it gets the in-between moments done very efficiently, leaving ninety percent of this show firmly in the gold ringed hands of the King himself who delivers an impressive catalogue of Elvis greats from Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel and Peace in the Valley to All Shook Up, Suspicious Minds and Blue Suede Shoes. Michaels’ is a vocal performance which only builds and impresses over the course of the performance. By the end of it all, the spell has been cast and the illusion is complete; this really is Elvis…isn’t it?This isn’t the story of Elvis’ life and the production courts a narrative rather than committing to it, often making the show err more on the side of tribute act than full blown musical. Kenwright directs with musical director Steve Geere and while there’s plenty to love about our Elvis and all his posing, lip curling and windmilling in time with the drums, the direction of the acted scenes is decidedly less impressive – not bad by any means, but just not well scripted or insightful enough, making the music and Michaels’ performances the lifeblood and core selling point of the show. We begin not with Presley’s rise to fame in the fifties and his subsequent phenomenal global success in music and movies, but with arguing organisers worrying about whether Elvis will show up for the famed filmed segment Presley did after his hiatus. Set design from Andy Walmsley offers a nostalgic television special set through Hollywood lighting borders and simple platforma to achieve the aesthetic of a bygone era and the production is keen to pay homage and mention the coining of the nickname ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ following the 1956 Milton Berle Show performance. There’s little in the way of a story early on as the production seeks only to recreate the TV special in the first act before moving on to the Vegas shows in the second.We are given snippets of behind the scenes exchanges as Elvis basks in the euphoria of returning to live performing. Deciding to stand up for himself and ditch the movies (Presley filmed 33 films between 1956 and 1972), he handles Manager Colonel Tom Parker, only present as a voice at the end of the phone. The Colonel is critiqued purely as a gambling, pushy overlord who took a naïve Elvis for a ride, but his presence does allow for a nice comic sequence with the phone and in this scene we get a taste of great fun that I’d like to have seen more of; the band begin cooing and crooning in the background at Elvis makes his excuses to a distant Priscilla until they’re swarming around him and drowning him out. Not only is this a beautifully done musical moment, it’s a rare moment of fun exposing a playful Elvis away from the stage but retaining his boyish smirking and easy laughter.We also get darker snippets which briefly shine a light on the burden and duty Elvis felt towards his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon – a boy he lived and achieved for, vicariously allowing the sibling an impressive life. The relationship with the mother is portrayed with great warmth and sentiment, but unfortunately momentarily sends the production into melodrama and dare I say…painful awkwardness as (*tiny spoiler*) poor Michaels has to drawl through tears while looking up to the sky: ‘I don’t think I can do this, Mama…I know…remember who I am…I’m Elvis Presley Mama, and I love you…’ Of course, such scenes are reminiscent of the acting style found in fifties movies, and yes, everything about Elvis has been honed into cheesy clichés for decades now, but by modern standards, Elvis’ momentary crisis of confidence is a tad overdone – although the reference to his mother during the concert plays much more credibly. The production is kind about Elvis’ infamous drug use, showing only some pill popping and talk of needing energy or relief – there is, thankfully, never any sensational inclusion of his hitting the drugs hard in the seventies before tragically dying at 42. Elvis leaves the building at the close of the show a beloved, celebrated musical giant and an intact legend.It’s an undoubtedly impressive performance from Michaels, and he’s a relentless performer, pushing the band on and on to repeat the refrain until he’s had his fill of the music, and it’s a sight to behold. While the crooning takes care of the auditory illusion, the posturing and glimpses of the well mastered Presley smirk and laugh draw us into the visual illusion of Elvis being right here, right now. Yet while Michaels carries the show, he is superbly accompanied by a talented collection of musicians and vocalists. The band is an eight-strong team with Tim Mylechreest and Niall Kerrigan standing out vocally while Billy Stookesis is fantastic on the drums and Steve Geere gloriously beats the keys into submission. They stand out amongst an accomplished bunch which includes Richie Hart, Benjamin Stratton, Andrew Bowerman and Mike Lloyd. A four-strong female cast including Misha Malcolm, Chevone Stewart, Melissa Brown-Taylor and Katrina May provide the back up group (also playing the Sweet Inspirations). Their vocals compliment the nods to gospel numbers beautifully while their ooing and ahing combines with choreographer Carole Todd’s affected, familiar routines to contribute bottled up fifties flair to the production.This is a well crafted production in that it’s all a very canny, very precise ruse to convince the paying audience in every possible way that This is Elvis. The laughter feels real. The enjoyment and appreciation of the crowd feels real. When Michaels stumbles on a few words in a key song, the self-deprecating grin and the momentary departure from the song while he has a chuckle feel like Elvis has had a slip up and how charming that is (or perhaps this was even in role…who knows??) The look is truly astounding and by the second half, Michaels’ voice has reached peak Elvis, perfecting renditions of It’s Now or Never, Burning Love, Always on My Mind and perhaps the most vocally impressive, The Wonder of You. The likeness is not always spot on of course – Elvis, like all of the greats, is nigh on inimitable, but goodness me the likeness here is both uncanny and a wonder (I’ll take the care here to add that the production shots don’t quite capture the likeness so well created by the lighting…) The abrupt close which sees Elvis take his bows but pulls the curtain down without curtain calls for the cast, has Elvis leaving the building without Steve Michaels ever showing himself to be the source. Even the programme gives Michaels a shot of him in costume as Elvis rather than a headshot like the rest of the cast. Steve Michaels must take a back seat and enjoy the applause in role rather than as performer and boy was this audience on their feet and full of gushing love for ‘The King’. Do I recommend? Absolutely – I think Michaels is worth every penny.
This is Elvis runs at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds until 9th June 2018 and you can find tickets here. Thereafter, the show continues to tour until 18th August 2018, and you can find tickets and information here.