Few performers have captured the imagination as thoroughly as Elvis Presley, who shook the pop music world to its roots and garnered immortality through his recordings, live performances and a string of Hollywood movies.
It was the medium of television, though, that afforded the singer a major comeback at a point in his career where he hungered for relevance.
Now, “Elvis ’68,” an original Maverick Theater show, allows us a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the 1968 Christmas special that gave Presley’s career a much-needed shot in the arm.
Maverick founder and artistic director Brian Newell wrote, designed the production for, and directs the show, which converts his Fullerton venue’s black-box space into a replica of a 1960s-style television studio.
It’s June of 1968, and we’re welcomed into Studio 4 of NBC Studios in Burbank, then seated on three sides of a thrust-stage platform dominated by a bandstand at one end and, at one opposite corner, an imposing-looking replica of an RCA TK-44 television studio camera.
We then meet Steve Binder (Frank Tryon), who explains that we’re here to watch the live concert segments of a special that will air at Christmastime and will also include prefilmed production numbers.
Binder is here to direct this live taping portion of the upcoming TV program – but his presence serves a more crucial purpose. We see Elvis through his eyes, and thanks to Newell’s compelling script, we grow to understand the pivotal importance of the broadcast special in Elvis’ overall career.
Tryon’s Binder, in a dark orange leisure suit, addresses us directly. At first, this device is used only to have him explain what the “studio audience” can expect while the cameras are rolling. Gradually, though, Binder shares his thoughts and feelings toward Elvis, and we learn how intensely personal the live concert segments became for both men.
These confessional passages are interspersed with Elvis’ live songs, played with both grit and genuinely affecting humility by Casey Ryan.
Though this concept may sound contrived, it isn’t. Binder explains that every few songs, the tech crew must check the footage. It’s during these pauses that we get the back story to the taping and the special itself.
As such, we learn how Presley’s career went from its zenith in the ’50s to its current nadir. The singer, Binder says, “had been making three movies per year for the past eight years” and hadn’t performed live since 1961..