Maverick Theater's 'The King' Has Risen!
The most popular scenarios in "what if" stories are how the present might be rewritten if certain events never happened and what our reaction would be today if some of our most popular myths came true. Yale Law professor Stephen Carter's new book, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, proposes that the recovered president would have been besieged by a mass Congressional conspiracy only two years later. The novel Fatherland offers that the U.S. managed to defeat only Japan in World War II, thus allowing Hitler to take over Europe and eventually deal with a very-much-alive John F. Kennedy in a 1964 Cold War showdown. And in Gorman Benchard's witty romp The Second Greatest Story Ever Told, the returning savior of mankind, Ilona Ann Coggswater, is shunned even though her message, the 11th Commandment, is ever so simple: "Be kind."
The most popular "what if," however, has to be about Elvis Aron Presley, the king of rock & roll, idol of millions, and professed lover of fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. Passing at the mere age of 42 from prescription-drug abuse, every year since that dark day in 1977, someone somewhere has claimed to have seen the King and that his death was faked. Playing off this popular American myth, playwright and director Brian Newell proposes a new theory: Upon Elvis' demise, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had Presley cryo-frozen, thus preserving the body for future resurrection. That glorious day has now arrived in The King, now at the Maverick Theater, and Parker's slimy nephew Chet (Rob Downs) and his saintly yet oblivious wife, Gwen (Natalie Beisner), bring the now-clean-and-sober Elvis (Frank Tryon) back to the adoring masses. Or at least that's the plan.
Instead of a spectacular homecoming for Presley, nasty mega-corporate billionaire Vic Vegas (R.C. Sands), in cahoots with a slew of other smarmy corporate types and the Elvis Estate, tampers with DNA evidence and snags the rocker (now legally forced to use the name "Aron King") into a web of deceptive contracts and lowbrow commitments, keeping him from reclaiming his title and thus protecting their profitable "death" franchise.
The concept is a winner, which makes it all the more frustrating that the story itself is rather mediocre. A forgettable sidestep into a coming-of-age tale concerning Gwen's cousin Billy Bob Joe (Mark Royston) and most other "dramatic" moments are more ho-hum than a-ha and tend to elicit a general lack of interest and tuning out. Fortunately, even though it takes a bit too long to arrive at the first musical performances, Newell has cleverly inserted snippets of rock song via a "'68 Comeback Elvis" (Casey Ryan), who towers above the audience, backlit by an enormous red-bulbed marquee similar to the one Presley used in his famous television appearance that same year. Clad in black leather and backed by a raucous band (including horns), Ryan definitely channels the legend (most notably in the lush ballads "Can't Help Falling In Love" and "It's Now or Never"), which is both supremely enjoyable and a necessity, since our dramatic Elvis onstage can't actually sing.
The fact that our Elvis isn't much of a crooner is disappointing, but it is tolerated since other story and character choices impress, including Gwen's girlfriend Lucille (Amber Jourñae), a sassy songstress who puts Chet in his place and belts out a roof-raising tune of her own, and the aforementioned Sands, whose mugging and posturing as Vegas the dirty villain are so over-the-top he seethes success. There's also a heap of inventive and professional video work projected onto an upstage screen that is often frightfully smart (especially the rise of Aron King's video on YouTube.)
In addition, Newell's poignant jab at consumerism via a fast-food-logo-laden Elvis jumpsuit and the surprisingly touching finale—in which we witness the brutal truth of what really would happen to Elvis should he attempt to entertain us once again—make any missteps feel less damaging. It's just an Elvis show, after all, and if you're not expecting to actually see the boy from Memphis and appreciate astute commentary on the corporate raping of our culture, then dust off your blue suede shoes, grab your little sister and take a quick trip to the edge of reality.
This review appeared in print as "The King Has Risen! Though not quite the Second Coming, the Maverick Theater's humorous Elvis production still pleases."
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