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Elvis People

This series of sketches about the King of Rock n' Roll are rarely amusing or involving. logo
Jordan Gelber and Nick Newell in Elvis People
(© Carol Rosegg)
Not much more than two years since the Elvis Presley-infused All Shook Up failed to shake up audiences noticeably, Doug Grissom has decided to prove The King still reigns with Elvis People, now at New World Stages for a very brief run through June 23 (barring a marked increase in sales).

Grissom, whose premise is the entire planet changed course when Elvis walked into Sam Phillips' Sun Records studios that fateful 1954 day in Memphis, hopes to make his point through a series of documentary-style revue sketches. He's come up with a viable notion, but sustaining it through a series of strained and infrequently amusing or involving skits doesn't help the cause enormously. Nor does a mawkish epilogue in which a visitor to Graceland's graffiti wall behaves as if he's at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall and guiltily intones, "I had taken Elvis fans for granted."

Yes, Elvis worship was (and still) is a religious experience for millions of his fans. But an opening scene in which a middle-aged couple reacts with disgust at Presley's 1956 Ed Sullivan debut while their teenage daughter rhapsodizes isn't so much religious as redundant. For anyone who tuned into CBS that highly publicized night, the premise had already grown a beard a month later. Ditto the lengthy one about the Elvis impersonator who wears his coal-black hairpiece with the bushy sideburns way beyond its sell-by date.

None of the other routines help beatify Elvis especially. The more tedious ones include "Fudge Ripple," an interlude with three Presley flunkies worrying about how they'll satisfy the boss' very particular ice cream craving, and "The Car," a glimpse of a married couple turning against their idol after he offers to buy them a Lincoln Town Car. (Apparently, Elvis was known to purchase automobiles for strangers to whom he took a shine.)

Some of the more sincere sequences -- such as "Elvis in Vietnam," in which a wheelchair-ridden veteran recalls how Elvis' music got him through the battlefield night -- inch beyond tedium toward the slightly offensive. And "Songwriting for E," wherein Elvis' notorious manager, Colonel Tom Parker, insults a songwriter about the commercial prospects of "In the Ghetto" is based on fact, but still borders on the ugly. Parker may have been a caution, but that doesn't justify this insulting jibe.

Indeed, the only sketch with any substance is "Snapshot," which peeks at a married couple squabbling over a photo she took long-distance of Elvis naked. This time, Grissom is examining recognizable marital tension, and the Elvis snapshot as a catalyst for the quarrel could be any artifact of the era.

Six actors -- Jordan Gelber, Jenny Maguire, David McCann, Nick Newell, Nell Page and Ed Sala -- hustle in and out of Theresa Squire's period styles and versions of Elvis' sequined jumpsuits. Not a one of them can be blamed because their earnest efforts don't amount to enough. Neither can heavy responsibility be placed on director Henry Wishcamper, who realized the material as well as might be expected, or set designer Cameron Anderson, who had the cute idea of hanging racks of Elvis-like costumes and Sears Roebuck-like 1950s dresses on both sides of the set.

As Elvis once suggested in song, no one wants to be cruel to a heart that's true. Nonetheless, there's little to be said for requesting the company of Elvis People.

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