'Elvis: A Musical Revolution'
Sydney State Theatre production
Review by Piers Beagley - September 2023
Since August 2023 'Elvis A Musical Revolution', a new bio-musical authorised by EPE has been playing in Sydney Australia.
Described as... The Icon. The King. The story of a man who gave the world a musical revolution.
Featuring over 40 hit songs, Elvis: A Musical Revolution celebrates the extraordinary life of award winning, cultural icon, Elvis Presley.
From his childhood in Mississippi, to his triumphant ‘68 Comeback Special, and ascent to become ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’, this brand-new high-energy production explores the pivotal moments in Elvis’s life and music career through the perspectives of those who knew him best.
EIN's Piers Beagley attended the August 16, 2023 performance and reports back.
Disclaimer: Let me declare that I like the genuine Elvis Presley. I really don’t like theatre musicals and I don’t like Elvis impersonators. So going to an “Elvis juke-box musical” was not high on my list.
To be honest I think that the last Elvis stage musical I saw was in the UK
in 1979 when I was at school - Jack Good's "Elvis" with P.J. Proby, Shakin' Stevens and Tim Whitnall all playing Elvis through the ages.
And the last time I visited the Sydney’s glamorous State Theatre to see anything Elvis related, it was for the premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘ELVIS’. That night included singing 'Can't Help Falling in Love' with Tom Hanks and Baz Luhrmann along with the packed audience of 2000 fans. It was one of the best 'Elvis Moments' of my life. (see spotlight)
So it was with slight trepidation that I found myself close to the front of the stalls for ‘Elvis: A Musical Revolution’ on the specially chosen date of August 16. It was a Wednesday and the theatre was around 75% full. I had expected more hardcore Elvis fans to be there for August 16*.
*Note: The Australian Matildas were playing in the Semi-Finals of the Women's Football World Cup that evening which would have understandably halted last minute ticket sales.
However as they say, “Elvis was in the building” and with a cleverly designed functional set and some high-energy performances it was a most enjoyable celebration of The King.
The story is by US writers Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti, the Australian producer is David Venn and the director Alister Smith who have previously worked together, including on the successful musicals ‘Cruel Intentions’ and ‘The Wedding Singer'.
There is no doubt that Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS has spurred some monetary investment into this show and the presentation is highly professional. Despite the publicity stating that this is the ‘world-premiere’ there have been some “cheaper” productions of the same show playing in the USA which have not received such good reviews.
In this production the lead Rob Mallett does a fine job as Elvis and being on stage for 99% of the show it must be incredible hard work. So while he could never top the astounding performance by Austin Butler (Butler was stunning but again that was a film, not a two hour non-stop theatre show) Mallet performs very well as the star of an Elvis ‘musical’ and is a far better choice than using an Elvis impersonator.
The ‘Kid Elvis’ was played by Rhys James Hankey who was absolutely sensational not only with some touching acting but also with a mind-blowing vocal range. Interacting throughout with the older Elvis he was almost the star of the show.
All the Australian cast were surprisingly strong, many of them having to play multiple roles. The “swing dancers” really pumped up the energy levels at the finale.
There is no doubt that the production team have been influenced by watching Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS movie and it was interesting that both productions use Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happen Every Day” to great effect.
In fact the show examines very similar themes as the movie did but without delving too deep into the topics. There is far more about Elvis’ black musical roots and gospel influences here than you might expect and I am sure Luhrmann’s movie also had something to do with that.
Jo-Anne Jackson who plays Sister Rosetta Tharpe (+ other characters) was impressive, as was Joti Gore as a great Roy Brown. Again like many of the cast he had multiple roles.
If I had any minor disappointment on the night I went – Wednesday August 16 – it was that there was not a single mention of the importance of the day although it was obviously expected by a large number of the audience. We were all Elvis fans so a simple announcement would have sufficed and made the show feel that more personal.
Aidan O Cleirigh (Scotty Moore), Hanlon Innocent (Bill Black), Connor Morel (DJ Fontana), the on-stage musicians were impressive and really connected with Elvis - while the actual house-band produced a rocking sound that filled the auditorium.
The show begins with the drama of the ’68 Comeback Special and Elvis in silhouette - but just as you anticipate a massive start Elvis’ doubts and fears kick-in and he wonders if he still has it. At this point a young child Elvis appears to offer reassurance and advice.
And it is this clever device, which continues throughout the show, that creates that special edge to the performance. It would look foolish in a movie but here it works very well.
As Elvis’ worries overcome him the story-line really starts when the play slips back to 1947 and to the young Elvis living in the black suburb of ‘Shake Rag’ Tupelo. Young Elvis’ Gospel and blues influences are nicely presented in ‘Church’ with Rev Brewster singing ‘This Train’ and then continues with the move to Memphis and Beale Street with a medley of Roy Brown, Rosetta Tharpe and Jackie Brenston.
When Elvis discovers SUN Records we even get Johnny Bragg’s ‘Just Walkin’ In the Rain’ demonstrating that Sam Phillips was willing to innovate anything, even by recording prison inmates.
And for me that is what made this musical so enjoyable. It wasn’t the Elvis "jukebox greatest hits" that you might expect but also a delightful selection of less well known but still important recordings.
The first song Elvis actually sings is ‘My Happiness’ which I am certain a fair portion of the audience would never had heard before.
Other well-chosen songs in the show – apart from the all-important classics – include ‘Baby Let's Play House, Mystery Train and Blue Moon of Kentucky. There was another surprise highlight with a beautiful ‘Blue Moon’ stunningly sung by ‘Kid Elvis’.
There was also a clever medley of ‘Aura Lee’ / ‘Love Me Tender’ when I am sure a lot of fans wouldn’t even know about the fact that Elvis’ 1956 number one single was an adaptation of this 1861 US Civil War song.
The ‘Kid Elvis’ and Gladys also perform a delightful duet of ‘Peace In The Valley’.
The second half of the show moves along at a pace from Elvis’ coming out of the army, his travelogue movies, marrying Priscilla and then rediscovering his core musical influences through to the glory of The Comeback Special. So anyone who expects the story to continue to Elvis' sad demise, or even Aloha, will be surprised with the fast and positive impression of the finale.
Elvis' anger over Col Parker’s decision to stick him in more and more ludicrous movie situations was nicely demonstrated*, had some cute dance routines, included those movie "classics" ‘Shake That Tambourine’ and ‘Old MacDonald’ and had the audience laughing along.
*Note: Some Elvis fans were upset that the medley included 'Change Of Habit' which was actually not one of Elvis' ridiculous travelogues. However when you look at the concept on paper there must have been better storylines available at the time.
The music in the second half includes Love Me Tender / Witchcraft performed by 'Frank Sinatra and Elvis' plus a pile of classics such as ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’, ‘Trouble / Guitar Man’ and the rockin’ ‘A Little Less Conversation’.
Again the production nicely chose the lesser-known ‘Hard Headed Woman’ as a key song in the second half to demonstrate Elvis’ later frustrations and anger with the Col Parker's stifling of his musical creativity.
And what a treat hearing ‘You're The Boss’ sung by Elvis and sexually-charged Ann-Margret. A total unknown to non-Elvis-collectors, this song suits the story line so well.
Kirby Burgess who plays Ann-Margret is a force to be reckoned with and a true star of this performance - together they do a stunning dance routine - and she received some well-deserved audience applause. Keep an eye out for her in future productions.
Accolades also to Isaac Lummis for the colourful costumes, Daniel Puckey as Music Director and Michael Ralph’s zippy choreography with some wonderful rock’n’roll jiving including plenty of dangerous over-the-top-flips at the end.
While the story-line ends with ‘the Comeback Special’ the reprise neatly justifies Elvis at full-blast in a crowd-pleasing white-jumpsuit routine.
Overall Verdict: It was great to see that 'Elvis: A Musical Revolution' had such a successful run in Sydney with weekend performances - even the Sunday 1pm matinees - basically Sold-Out.
This would have never been possible before last year's massive re-ignition of Elvis’ legacy with the award-winning Luhrmann’s ELVIS movie.
On the night I deliberately left my Elvis-fact-checker at home (of course Elvis didn't sing Heartbreak Hotel until the very final Louisiana Hayride) and just enjoyed a blast of good music, energetic performances and fine jiving. The lesser-known Elvis songs, the ‘Kid-Elvis’ device along with the overall strong performances from the whole cast kept this keen Elvis addict very happy.
I also checked with friends who are not overtly “Elvis Fans” (yes, they are some out there in the world!) who also agreed it was a fun night and gave the show 4 out of 5 stars.
For an alternate review see City-Hub here
'Elvis: A Musical Revolution' is now playing the final week in Sydney. It moves to Melbourne at the Athenaeum Theatre from September 30 until November 26 for an incredible sixty-six performances.
Go here to 'Elvis a Musical Revolution' for more information and tickets
Comment on this Review
Review by Piers Beagley.
-Copyright EIN September 14, 2023
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
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