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ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER REVIEW

JAN. 12 - FEB. 25, 2018

SHOWTIMES

Friday & Saturday, 8pm

Sunday, 6pm

TICKETS $30

$10 for students with current ID

BOX OFFICE

Starring

Casey Ryan as Elvis Presley

Rob Downs as Steve Binder

Written & Directed by Brian Newell

 

Elvis '68 relives a historic moment in music history, leather suit and all. This stage re-creation of the crooner's 1968 live comeback special explores a pivotal moment in the life and career of Elvis Presley. At the time,  Elvis hadn't played a live show in seven years and his popularity was fading. But what was meant to be a safe Christmas concert turned into an intimate jam session. This show features 20 of Elvis’ hits with storytelling and audience interaction.

 

Elvis '68' in Fullerton propels

king of '50s rock back into spotlight

 

Original Maverick Theater show offers intriguing behind-the-scenes look at Presley’s NBC television special, which sparked a comeback for Elvis.

 

BY ERIC MARCHESE

Published: May 15, 2014

   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..

   And Binder admits he and his staff were initially cold to the project. “My scene is the Beatles and Beach Boys,” he says. Elvis was a relic from the ’50s, a “hillbilly teen idol joke.”

But in crafting the special and working closely with Presley, Binder says he got to know “who Elvis really was.”

It’s this narrative stream, expertly delivered with genuine affection and respect for Elvis by Tryon’s Binder, that drives “Elvis ’68.” Obviously, though, Maverick’s show would fall flat without a convincing Elvis.

Ryan more than makes the grade, and though in both looks and vocal quality he bears little resemblance to Elvis, he captures the essence of the singer’s stage presence and a kind of raw honesty and genuine likability that drives every song.

That ability to instantly connect with us starts with Elvis’ obvious case of the jitters, born of years away from live audiences where he acted, instead, for cameras and movie crews. Driven by Elvis’ trademark pelvis action, an opening medley of “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and “All Shook Up” quickly dispels that anxiety.

Many of Presley’s best-known songs are featured, with a general pattern of frenetic numbers like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Don’t Be Cruel” alternating with those of a more slow-tempo, lyrical nature like “Memories” and “Love Me Tender.”

This strategy not only lets us hear some lesser-known Presley songs (“Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” “If I Can Dream”); it also shows, through Ryan’s impressive musicianship, the skill, versatility and heart that Presley brought to every note of every song in his every live performance.

Ryan gets solid musical support from guitarist Jack Majdecki, bass player Floyd Bland and drummer Sho Fujieda and backup singers Annamarie Mayer, Lauren Shoemaker and Janell Henry. The actor-singer’s version of Presley’s encore, “Suspicious Minds,” is simply electrifying.

And though the generally jaded stance of today’s audiences is a far cry from the kind of shrieking hysteria that pop stars of Presley’s day were able to generate, the overall effect of “Elvis ’68” is of seeing a musical superstar up close as he grinds out each number in hopes of breathing new life into a slumping career.