All Hail Elvis the Cute!

The play that launched a theater

Following a performance of The King last summer at Stages Theatre in Fullerton, a university-educated theater practitioner who knows the difference between Pirandello and Pantalone walked up to writer/director Brian Newell and said his show was "cute." That apparently innocuous comment is an appropriate place to begin a discussion of The King, an original play that is as close to a theatrical phenomenon as the OC theater scene has ever seen: a successful play that launched a theater.

Newell's light-hearted comedy, playing through the end of the year at the Maverick Theater in Orange, is a fanciful what-if that explores what might happen if, as some suspect and the National Enquirer knows, Elvis Presley faked his death. What if instead of dying on his Graceland crapper that fateful day in 1977, the King was freeze-dried in a cryonic chamber by Colonel Parker's godson? What if he was thawed out 25 years later?

The Kingis truly multimedia. Featuring a live band performing some 20 Elvis numbers, it's a combination of theater, rock concert and short film. Lots of people love it. It opened at Stages in July and wound up the most successful show in that theater's history, selling out all but a handful of performances. It was lauded by most reviewers, including the Weekly's Rich Kane.

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Buoyed by the success, Newell decided to continue its life elsewhere. On a whim, he called the leasing manager at the Block, the gargantuan outdoor mall in Orange.

"I thought the Block would be perfect because of its theater-type atmosphere; it's a place where people could go and dine and hang out," said Newell.

Newell's timing was perfect. The space that once housed Mars Music was vacant. The leasing manager told Newell he could open a theater in the 25,000-square-foot facility until a new tenant was found.

Assisted by his wife, Heidi, and Jim Book, a set and lighting guru with a hand in shaping nearly every theater north of the 22 freeway, Newell spent four intense weeks converting a part of the building into a playing space. It seats 88 comfortably but feels bigger, with a ceiling nearly two times the height of Stages'.

The King opened at the newly christened Maverick Theater on Sept. 6. Opening weekend sold out, but attendance since averages around 50 percent. He's disappointed at the decline, but Newell realizes this is the early leg of what he hopes will be a long trek.

"This is the first time I've ever run a theater, so I'm finding out all the highs and lows," he said.

His lease runs through the end of the year. If things work out at the Block, he's confident he'll be able to negotiate a deal for a permanent space elsewhere in the mall.

Newell is a cinema buff whose dream is to work in film but whose reality is working in theater in order to exercise those creative muscles. Among other productions, he has directed Stalag 17and adapted a bootleg version of The Magnificent Stage."Instead of a camera and a lens, I use a stage and a curtain," he said.

He could be proud of what he has accomplished, but Newell wouldn't be human if he didn't have a chattering monkey in his head—that nagging voice that bedevils nearly every creative soul from time to time: Is he selling out? The King is not cutting-edge theater—doesn't push the theatrical form in any way other than the technical. (Newell's use of video is very effective, with short films continuing the action and serving as bridges between scenes.) But it's hard to shake the impression that Newell's multimedia approach isn't there to explore the limitless possibilities of the stage so much as to serve Newell's obvious cinematic leanings.

More problematic is the script, which is sometimes as hokey as one of Elvis' bleached-beach movies. There's a potentially interesting messiah metaphor, but the script lacks any real psychological depth, character complexity or substance.

But the biggest gap is Newell's white-bread spin on Elvis. We get the down-home, aw-shucks Elvis, but it's the naughty Elvis, the dangerous Elvis, the American tragedy, hip-grinding, leather-jacket-wearing, pill-popping, gun-shooting, Nixon White House-visiting, karate-chopping, big-feet-licking Elvis that made him fascinating. Newell knows that—knows that the heaviest thing about his play is the fake girth around the belly of Frank Tryon's Elvis. And he knows that the audience filling his theater has come primarily for a vanilla treatment of a legendary, complicated personality. And he's fine with it. Newell isn't producing theater aimed at the cultural intelligentsia. He's not looking to rattle cages or to play the provocateur.

Perhaps his greatest ambition is to bring theater to people who might otherwise pass it by. Newell sees a cross-section of America at the Block—all ages, all ethnicities, all backgrounds. But he's constantly amazed by their theatrical ignorance.

"People will walk by the space, and when they find out this is a theater, they say, 'Great! When does the movie start?'" Newell said. "And then I say we're doing a play, and it's like a foreign thing to them."

Newell invites other local theaters to drop off fliers promoting their shows, reserving one lobby wall for the propaganda. His hope is that uninformed people will walk into his play and walk out wanting more. Turning people on to theater, he said, is more important than playing to the converted.

"Someone who works theater or has been exposed to theater may want the envelope pushed," Newell said. "Those of us who love theater want to get aggressive and take chances. But in opening at a place like this, I'm relating to a public that that doesn't know anything about theater. That's why I hope that if they like what they see here—the intimate type of theater that isn't a Broadway show—they'll investigate what else is out there."

That position beautifully illustrates the dilemma of artistic responsibility: Aim for the widest possible audience by offering easily digestible fare? Or challenge an audience's sensibilities by turning their world upside-down? Write like Danielle Steel or Don DeLillo? Paint like Thomas Kinkade or Jackson Pollock? Play the guitar like John Denver or Jimi Hendrix?

Newell seems fine with his own answer: "I know some would say what I'm doing is a complete sell-out, like a dinner theater making the easy buck. But it's more important to me than that. I think entertaining is a responsibility, and when you want to appeal to a mass market, you have to be a little more responsible. If this is billed as a comedy and people come here after church, it'd be pretty embarrassing [if they were shocked or offended]. I'm promoting a show that I want everyone to enjoy. Down the road, maybe we can get more risqué, take more chances."

Newell may drive a while before he passes that signpost. The next project at the Maverick? A Christmas show, an adaptation of a novella called A Christmas Carol.

The King at the Maverick Theater at the Block at Orange, 20 The City Blvd. W., Orange, (714) 634-1977. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m. Through Dec. 21. $15-$18; Joel Beers talks to Brian Newell about theater and cinema on his radio show, Theater Rant, on KUCI-FM. Thurs., Oct. 3, 4 p.m. Listen in via live Internet stream at kuci.org.

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